I admit a God in every crevice
But not bats in my room;
Nor the God of bats, while the sun shines.
Few poets have worn the animal skin as convincingly as D.H. Lawrence. Whether it was a hummingbird poking flowers, a horny tortoise, or a snake coming to sip from a Sicilian spring, the author of the scandalous Lady Chatterly's Lover
apprehended animal desire, an animal's soul. If a bat suddenly flitting through his daytime study gave him the heebie-geebies, "an uneasy creeping in one's scalp" as he put it, Lawrence still couldn't resist the poet's job of becoming the subject:
Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop...
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,
Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.
Ever the instinctive pagan, Lawrence reminds us that animals accompany the Gods: an eagle bearing Zeus, Aphrodite emerging wet from the oyster shell, Dionysus's chariot drawn by panthers; that they who were our first Gods, who bestowed fire, also taught us to build shelters, to climb, swim, fly, how to hunt and what to eat, what to spin and weave, what to court and, lest we forget in our insolence, to dance around the flames in gratitude for their gifts.
Clans and tribes were formed under blessing animals, an ancient nominative reflex still apparent in team mascots, Lions' clubs, and quilting bees. The Shawangunks' only lizard, the incandescent five-lined skink which has a curious tendency to slip mockingly from a crack to reveal its felicity on the rock during a climber's most desperate moments ultimately curls reverentially around the Gunks Climbers' Coalition logo.
But bats, at least in Western lore, have born menacing and un-heroic associations. Though trickster figures like the coyote and raven have been adopted by professional sport franchises, no one (except for cavers, perhaps) is about to take the field bearing the device of a critter whose head hangs where its rear end should be. Issuing from the Underworld, a bat is often seen as a vampire totem and doppelganger, a pale god carrying in its bite (or, is it a kiss?) madness or a burdensome immortality. They are illustrated circling belfries in their pin-ball parabolas, tolling pathology and plague, a shadow among shadows, the essence of Night. That's a lot of baggage for a mouse with wings.
One wonders how these neighbors whose home we shared at the dawn of human imagination, whose grotto walls became our first bestiaries teeming with awe at the animal kingdom, the temples for our earliest rites and the setting for Plato's seminal allegory of Western thought got such a bad rap. Pest controller and pollinator, we owe them much. Instead, bats, not serpents, were the first beasts cast from Eden.
Like amphibians and bees, I don't need to tell you that bats are in trouble. The die-off that has already wiped out tens of thousands of bats began three years ago in a cave west of Albany. It swept through the crumbling cement mines housing wintering colonies in Rosendale last February, leaving images that would have spooked even D.H. Lawrence bats flopping helplessly on streets and sidewalks, littering the grounds outside the mines, dropping dead by the score in broad daylight.
They hop-scotched from the Snyder Estate mines across the street to our roof, launching forays over the Rondout Creek below, working the ice for absent bug hatches, doomed. A dozen starved in our eaves. One day I came home to find one quivering and scuttling across the deck like a wind-up toy winding down, finally summoning up enough strength to wobble over the railing before dropping hopelessly into the canal. Heartbreaking.
Way back in March at the Rosendale Recreation Center, a packed house was treated to a three-part bat-talk updating residents on the latest research, courtesy of the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation and the folks proposing the controversial gated-development at Williams Lake. You've probably read about White Nose Syndrome (WNS), the sugary fungus haloing bat muzzles and corroding wing and tail membranes; that several species are dying in caves or "hibernacula," which rhymes with Dracula, fittingly enough at staggering rates of between 90 and 100 percent; and that WNS has spread since 2006 from central New York to New Hampshire and southern Virginia. Until very recently, this fungus that thrives in cold climates went unnamed, and no one knew exactly what role WNS was playing in the die-off.
Researchers now have an idea, however. Hibernation studies have found that bats rouse a little, without becoming fully active, every two weeks or so, before they settle back into deep torpor. That tiny bit of arousal burns fat reserves. WNS appears to be causing bats to rouse more frequently, perhaps to groom themselves of the fungus while changing location. Bats with WNS are also registering higher body temperatures. Bat hibernation temperatures are only a little higher than the ambient air in the hibernaculum. Another possible reason is that they are sometimes found roosting closer to cooler cave entrances, where they get picked off by opportunistic crows. With restlessness and higher rates of metabolism depleting fat reserves, they are forced eventually to seek sustenance. Normally a late autumn or early spring activity, a bat driven to feed during daylight, mid-winter, is as the venerable DEC mammologist Al Hicks once described "a dead bat flying."
Hibernaculum humidity also may be implicated in the spread of WNS. At Williams Lake, mines which are a stone's throw from one another are registering wildly differing mortality rates, with the wetter mines seeing bigger die-offs. Humidity can even vary inside the same mine, where the common, shoulder-to-shoulder cuddling "little brown" species and the endangered Indiana bat are being hit harder than neighboring cave-dwellers like the eastern pipistrelle and northern long-eared bats. Employing dehumidifiers to reduce WNS transmission, and spot-heating hibernacula to slow metabolism during arousal when some bats are seeking warmer not cooler locations, have been proposed as stop-gaps, though these interventions at best can only delay the die-off.
But WNS isn't the whole story. Uninfected bats are being found entering hibernation in poor condition; and infected carcasses harvested from Rosendale have shown low or no presence of intestinal bacteria critical for metabolizing insect exoskeletons, a condition possibly caused by background pesticides or other environmental toxins. Much remains unknown, and researchers are scrambling to get a handle on things before the infectious wave breaks on hibernacula across the country. In the meantime, state wildlife agencies have quarantined sites from visitation to reduce the risk of possible human-born contamination (we are safe from the fungus, however).
Everything about the recent die-off is lit with eerie contrasts: night creatures appearing out of season and vividly at noon; a plaguing fungus colored not black, but white, brewed not in some soupy jungle, but in cool northern caves; and a legendary evil omen transforming itself into sympathetic victim. What's killing them, in the end, may save them. Bats haven't had exactly the documentary cachι of toddling penguins or garnered the do-or-die attention of emaciated polar bears marooned on melting ice floes until now. Media coverage of, and research interest in, bats is unprecedented all while the bell tolls. The bat world, indeed, is turning upside down.
D.H. Lawrence, however, knew a bat's natural place.
At a wavering instant the swallows
give way to bats
By the Ponte Vecchio. . .
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