It is coming to the end of bat season. The insects are thinning out as the nights get colder, and soon the bats will start their hibernation, a dangerous foray into something like cryostasis. I often think of the pods that Ripley ends up in at the end of the first Alien films – putting herself at the mercy of a hopefully self-regulating environment.
She becomes insert flesh awaiting an external prompt to return to life, as a bat does. Perhaps there will be one this winter in the bat box at the end of my garden, a frozen stone wrapped in smooth leather, hanging with minute claws from the wood of the roof.
I won’t go and look. It’s illegal to interfere with a bat roost or to handle a single animal without a licence. This applies even to the common pipistrelle that lives near me.
The wall of protection (of the bat, and of me, from its possible diseases) means that bats always seem to me to be peripheral, contingent things. Whereas a robin might come and sit in the redcurrant bush as I dig over the soil, so close I can see the fringe of feathers round its bill, the bat is a shadow. In high summer, if you stand still enough by a wildlife-friendly pond, a dragonfly might sit on your outstretched hand, heavy and firm-gripped for an insect. A bat’s wingtip might brush your hair with the lightest of touches as it echolocates a fleeing moth, but never more than that.
But even so bats are bound up with summer for me. This might seem surprising. I hardly need to go over bats’ folkloric, literary and popular associations with gloom and horror. And their faces can appear hideous at first glance – as a result of their precise adaptation to night hunting.
My counter is, on a warm summer’s evening, go out into a garden or a park just after sunset, when the clouds are still touched with light and the sky seems both to be a perfect plane and also immensely deep. Look up, and wait.
A silhouette may break from the great dark shapes of the trees and shoot across. You may see it only in the corner of your eye, but it will come back, in quick circles. It goes silently at our hearing range, in contrast to the bird calls that are still sounding. After a few glimpses the shape will begin to resolve itself – not quite Lewis Carrol’s “tea tray in the sky”, but powering by despite the fragility visible, even at this distance, in its wings.
Bats benefit from warm weather and unkempt gardens. Insects thrive in both. At dusk moths are on the wing, and gnats and flies that the night air has not yet cooled. A garden with a bat, or two, or three, is a living place, its food webs all entangled and crowded.
I was delighted when I first saw a bat over my garden. It wasn’t – and its successors still aren’t – anything remarkable in species terms. A common pipistrelle is still fairly common, although like all bat species it is under pressure due to loss of roosting sites and the general decline in insect numbers due to intensive farming and destruction of habitat.
It was the feeling of coming close to an “other” whose perceptions and life are quite alien to me, but whose skill and speed in flight and navigation make a spectacle as great as watching swallows sweep the air. The wall of legislation between me and the bat mean I’ll never be in a position to answer Thomas Nagel’s question “what is it like to be a bat?”, but it does give what little interaction we have an intensity that can only be felt in that moment. It is of a piece with a long, hot summer. The emotions of the time make a deep impression, but when recalled years later they are blurred, touched with a little disbelief that it really was like that.
So in the summer months I try to get into the garden at dusk as often as I can to watch the pipistrelles. Often there is only one, but once in a while there may be three, each a flicker-shape on my retinas as I breathe the smell of grass and flowers (and fumes from the busy road over the hedge). I’m too old now to catch any of their echo-clicks – though I do remember hearing them, like hearing the footsteps of an ant, in a wooded lane in Wales many years ago – so I wait for them to take “just one more” whizzed flight over my head.
This activity is the peak of the bat season. This year it was bookended by moments less graceful, but fascinating.
Bats in flight are so assured, it’s odd to see one vulnerable. But as my family made our usual amble into town along the river one spring weekend afternoon we encountered one that, like Ripley woken from her pod, seemed barely able to take the world in.
Our daughter was running on ahead, keeping close to the willow trunks that line the towpath. Suddenly she stopped – usually a sign that she’s seen something interesting. She was leaning slightly back, turning her head at tight angles.
At first I thought it was a bird in front of her, perhaps a fledgling trying to figure out which way to go. Or maybe it was a big butterfly. I couldn't see it clearly, it was all movement. It didn’t go away and we hurried to catch up.
It was a pipistrelle, slip-sliding and yawing in the fresh spring air, a novice ice skater in brown fur. Its movements were so rapid, desperate, it appeared to leave a trace of colour where it had been, a bat-cloud. As we watched – luckily no cyclists clattered through its space – it managed to steer back onto the ivy-covered trunk it must have fallen from.
We got as close as we dared without alarming it, though it didn’t seem aware of us, and stared at the smoothness of its wings, the bare wrinkled skin of its face, its translucent ears, the tiny claws with which it clung to the ivy stems. It hung there a while until the scrap of fur between the wings stopped heaving. We felt we had to watch over it a while, it seemed so exposed. Slowly, very slowly, it dragged itself into the thick dress of ivy wound around the trunk, back into the dark where it could finish its waking. When the toes of its back feet were out of sight we felt we could move on.
Summer was hesitant to start this year, and seems hesitant to go. But evenings are consistently getting darker and the chill seems damper and more insidious. The bats will be preparing for hibernation, an ever-riskier strategy as the seasons become less predictable. There’s still just enough light in the evenings for me to take short-cuts along some of the footways that cross Oxford independently of the road system. As I stepped into the shadows of one of these routes a few days ago, a tawny owl called just above my head. The sound is of a wet finger being rubbed around the rim of a huge, resonant glass bowl. Another owl answered from not far away.
While I stood listening, my ankles brushed by the long grass of the verge, that familiar flicker touched the edge of my vision. I knew it was a bat simply from the transience of the experience, its apparent silence. I listened to the owls, and watched. One more glimpse, that was all, a creature perceived only between shadow and shadow. When the bats are gone it really will be dark.