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A Yankee Notebook

July 16, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I realize that “bloodcurdling scream” is a cliché, but that’s what it was that roused me from my keyboard – a bloodcurdling scream. But Mother and I have been together a long time, so in the second after the first note I can tell whether it’s a cry of pain caused by an injury or a cry of terror caused by a probably vertebrate interloper. This was terror.

“There’s a bat in the hall!” she cried. This was not intended as an announcement of some rather interesting news, but as a call to action. So I sprang into action. I stepped into the hall, which was now empty. She was peering through the narrow space between her office door and its jamb, and there was no bat in sight. I opened my coat closet and took out my little landing net – rather like a short-handled tennis racquet with a net bag in place of strings – and went on the hunt.

My reactions to emergencies like these are always, I’m afraid, inadequate. I can’t possibly achieve the intensity of horrified excitement as that expressed by my spouse; yet I feel the need to at least pretend to be excited. My father used to be the same way when, for example, a bee or hornet flew into our speeding car: He pulled over to the side of the road, gently guided the distressed insect into the palm of one hand with the finger of another, stepped outside, and blew it away with a puff of breath. “You have to be careful before you blow,” he said once, “not to inhale within six inches of the bee.”

I hunted through the kitchen, the dining room, and the living room. Nothing. He wasn’t in the hall. He was lying doggo somewhere. “I don’t see him,” I called through her office door. “He’s hiding. I’ll look again before bedtime, and again in the morning. I’ve closed the bedroom and bathroom doors. So you’re all right.”

This was not a satisfying report. I knew she’d continue the search. Sure enough; a few minutes later she announced she’d found him, clinging to the side of the decorative dropped ceiling that runs around the dining room. Again I sallied forth (another cliché).

He was hanging head down on vertical sheetrock – how, I don’t know. I gently placed the landing net over him and pulled down until he fell into it. My plan was to roll him up in it, take him to the back door – surely he’d recognize that it was a catch-and-release net – and let him go into the night. Instead, he launched himself out of the entangling mesh and rocketed out of the dining room. I followed with the net. I’d wait till he swooped near me at head height somewhere and surprise him with a lightning-quick move.

Nothing doing. He could see that net coming before I even thought of raising it. He seemed to like the high-ceilinged living room best. But if things got too hot for him there, he simply zoomed into the dining room, then left through the kitchen, left again down the hall; a U-turn at the bedroom door, then back into the living room by the other door and more dodging around my net. He could really fly! He was plenty large – almost a foot in wingspan – but he never even came near a door jamb, a ceiling fan, or a light fixture.

It was obvious I wasn’t going to catch him again; and then I thought, “Why don’t I do for him what the Witch of Coös does for the skeleton in Robert Frost’s poem - give him a way out? Why don’t I just open the back door? He’s sure to feel the outside air and go for it.” Ten seconds later he flew through the black opening and disappeared into the night.

This was the third bat we’ve had in the hall in four years (naturally, Mother spotted them all). The only common feature of their appearance has been the open attic door. I’m going to have to scout around the outside to find how in the world they’re getting into the attic. I’d never dream of calling an exterminator. Bats are beneficial neighbors, and they’re recently threatened, besides, by white-nose syndrome that’s killed thousands of them.

Our house bats are probably little brown bats, Myotis lucifugus. For obvious reasons, I’ve never held onto them long enough to make sure they weren’t of another species. Whatever they are, they’re friends, who devour hundreds of flying insects that otherwise would devour us out in the yard. When I get farther along siding my garage, I’ll install a bat house somewhere on it to encourage them to stay (and not come into the house to curdle my blood).

For years, when we lived in the Upper Valley, my friend Ken Shewmaker and I fished for trout on late June evenings during the hatch of a huge mayfly, Hexigenia limbata, the diplodocus of the mayfly world. The pond was invariably smooth and quiet; but in the bankside willows blackbirds, flycatchers, and kingbirds chattered expectantly. When suddenly the great off-white nymphs began to appear on the surface, split, and flutter upward, the birds were everywhere, gulping them out of the air. Some birds even mistook our imitations for the real thing, and tried to pick them off the water and fly away with them. When they felt the weight of the line rising off the water, they let go in apparent alarm.

As the dusk deepened and it became harder to see, we were aware of soft flutterings around our heads. The bats were out. I speeded up my backcasts and cut them to a minimum; I didn’t want to catch a bat in the air. They’re bug-eaters, and all 38 of their teeth are sharp. Shortly, our flies on the water were invisible, so we abandoned the pond and the flies to our little airborne pals.

Photo by Willem lange