Bat Country

by Gordon Grice


The following originally appeared in Granta 63: Beasts.  It is re-printed here with full permission from the author.

My first one: I was six years old. The thing clung to a cinderblock wall in my father’s shop. It seemed feeble, rocking its head to dodge the light, tentative as a shivering newborn kitten. It was nothing like the image I’d taken from vampire movies on TV. Its blunt face terminated in a nose made of hideous convolutions of flesh. On TV the wings could have been cut from black velvet. The real ones were naked and veined, their gray hide suggesting both the delicacy of a child’s skin and the desiccation of an old man’s.

I wanted to catch it, but my father told me not to touch it, not even to approach. Months later two older boys at school brought a similar specimen in an aquarium. They brought it to all the classrooms, and we gazed at the creature from some other realm. When it died soon after, the two boys who’d handled it had to be vaccinated. The doctors stabbed long needles into their bellies.

It is a myth, of course, to say they’re all rabid. Less than one percent of them are. It’s truer to say one too slow and earthbound to stay out of human hands is dangerous—near death, and a possible vector of death.

Having followed the directions in a press kit, I found myself standing in a landscape of eroded hills and red earth. This rugged country had risen abruptly as I drove the plains of northern Oklahoma. An old couple met me as soon as I peeled myself out of the car. The man had a concavity of eyelid where his left eye had been, and the stump of his left forearm was encased in a leather sheathe and held against his body by one of his suspenders. He said he was a farmer. The woman, who was dressed in yellow polyester and seemed impervious to the heat, asked brightly if I was a volunteer too. I said no, I’ve only come to watch.

Soon we were piled, with a dozen others, into pickup trucks and driven down a set of dirt roads crusted with caliche. We had vowed not to reveal the route to anyone else. The secrecy was meant to protect the biological treasure we’d come to see. We reached a valley of red cedar and tamarisk, yucca and sand plum, where a hot wind harried the black dragonflies. I gazed into the thin, deep creek that crawled the valley floor and saw a peculiar abundance: minnows swimming in place against the current, sluggish catfish groping in the mud with their tentacled faces. If I hadn’t already known about the hidden life of this valley, the richness of fish might have been my first clue. The water trickles through gypsum caves before it gathers into the creek, and in the caves it becomes rich with the leavings of one million nocturnal predators.

I’d come here with wildlife professionals and conservation volunteers to witness the emergence of these predators, which would reveal themselves at dusk. Meanwhile, it was an arid ninety-five degrees and a fleshy cloud to the south was kneading itself into a tense knot as it approached, as if fretting that it had nothing to give us. We walked the trail, and the professionals stopped us at metal markers to comment. Rena, the lead biologist, struck me as surprisingly pale for someone who worked outdoors. “This appears to be a red cedar tree, but it is really two red cedar trees,” she said. You could tell, she pointed out, because one side bore blue juniper berries and the other didn’t. If you peered deep into the needled foliage you could see two distinct trunks at the core.

High in the male half of the tree rested a peculiar brown growth. It looked like a furry golf ball with tentacles.

“When it rains, that thing will open up. It’ll be like a slimy hand,” Rena said.

“It’s a parasite that needs two hosts at different stages of its life cycle,” added Davis, a biologist with a small face engulfed in an extravagant beard. “It needs an apple tree and a red cedar.” Lacking either host, it can’t survive. The apple tree, which hosts the ball of rot in its infancy, may be twenty miles distant or more.

We moved on, discussing plant life or the occasional reptile that revealed itself by rustling in its shaded bed of fallen cedar needles. The volunteers were to learn the ecosystem which lay before us, a cryptic web of relations connecting everything from the trees to the insects to the rabbits whose round pellets of scat revealed their existence. The volunteers would have to answer questions from the tourists who would soon scuffle the trails of this park, each busload having first taken the vow of secrecy.

One of those black dragonflies buzzed into someone’s face, prompting the woman to windmill ineffectually. Up close, each of the creature’s wings seemed branded with blue thumbprints. The biologists reminisced about a monster insect of uncertain order that had terrorized them all for ten seconds at the last dusk. The volunteers offered helpful suggestions about what it might have been, all of which the professionals dismissed. It was, they said, an utter mystery.

A thorny tamarisk stood at an elbow of the path. “Supposedly their roots go a hundred feet deep,” said Davis. That’s why this imported species can thrive among the dry valleys and buttes of northern Oklahoma. The twisted elms that tossed their heads in the wind were of the Siberian variety, another species imported for its deep-drilling roots.

At a turn of the path, everyone stopped. An unpleasant substance lay in the middle of the trail, its odor announcing its freshness. The professionals poked at the stuff with twigs and examined the pugmarks. A spirited debate erupted, one faction of biologists arguing that the substance was scat, another favoring vomitus. Because the prints showed no evidence of claw marks, Rena ruled out coyote. Members of the canine clan can’t retract their claws. This was the work of a cat. Since the smelly matter wasn’t buried, it was probably vomitus rather than scat. Or else we had startled the cat away before it meant to leave.

“A neighbor of mine saw a mountain lion standing in the middle of the highway the other morning,” said the farmer. This remark touched off a round of stories about recent sightings. I followed the track off into the grass, where it disappeared. The pugmarks were small, surely the work of a bobcat rather than a mountain lion. I crouched to look along the path he might have taken. At that level I could see tunnels between the clumps of grass, roofed by the overarching stalks.

These tunnels, Davis told me, are runways for killdeer and mice, paths for cottontail and roadrunner. And bobcat.

One of the volunteers mapped caves for a living. As we walked he told me about bat caves.

“You don’t want to go into a cave that houses a big colony. You could die from it.”

The problem is a fungus that grows in the feces. A large group of bats drops enormous quantities of guano, creating a heavy concentration of airborne histoplasm spores. The spores can infect human lungs, causing dense, fibrous knots of tissue to form there. On an x-ray, a victim’s lungs look as if he’s inhaled a handful of dimes. The infection can spread to other organs.

“The ironic thing,” the caver added, “is that doctors used to think it was tuberculosis, and they’d send people into caverns to live in the cool and damp.”

I asked what it looks like in the cave.

“The guano is waist deep. It’s black and shiny, exactly like tar. I didn’t take my mask off in there, of course, but before we went in we could smell the stink, like ammonia.” The odor is another effect of a concentrated bat population. Bat guano doesn’t smell much until it’s digested by a species of beetle that eats nothing else and thrives only where the deposits are deep.

The buttes rimming the valley jut like human molars. They’re made of sandstone compacted in layers. Ages of water eroded the land around these relatively durable patches of sandstone, sculpting the rest of the landscape away to leave the buttes.

Some of the less durable parts of the land are made of gypsum. Gypsum erodes into angular particles of sand that sting when the wind drives them. But, in an accumulation on the ground, gypsum sand takes on a peculiar fluidity, rippling along into drifts and dunes. It is softer to the touch than quartz sand.

Water eats greedily at gypsum, dismantling it faster than many other minerals. Because the buttes are riddled with gypsum, they are also riddled with caves. Rena explained this business as she made us stop and look west. The butte there was just going dark as the sunlight leant toward the horizontal. “What do you see?” she demanded.

“A butte,” someone said.

“A window,” someone else added.

“A window,” Rena confirmed. It looked a perfect rectangle punched high in the face of the butte. “Just like everything else in this valley, it’s a product of water erosion.” The desiccating wind slapped her hair around into her face, as if mocking the idea of moisture.

The professionals, as it develops, discovered this hole only the night before. Davis had climbed the butte this very day to explore the discovery. He found a chimney in the top of the butte which seemed to connect with the horizontal shaft starting at the window. “I could see about a dozen feet down,” he said. “I wasn’t going in.”

Everybody laughed. Everybody knew what he hadn’t bothered to say: Western diamondbacks live in holes like that. These reptiles grow thick as a man’s leg, and they kill more human beings than any other snake in North America. After a pause, the stories about people bitten by diamondbacks started up. The peculiar thing about diamondbacks is that tall tales you hear from fools and liars are never as horrible as truths you hear from biologists and doctors. This day the best horror story detailed a bitten leg that swelled until it “busted just like a ripe tomato.”

The diamondbacks in this region grow to more than seven feet long and thirty pounds. These measurements are meager compared to some tropical or marine reptiles, but they’re substantial for a cold-blooded animal in a country of dry, boiling summers and ground-freezing winters. The secret of their survival here is the very wrinkling of the earth. In the eroded furrows that line the buttes, they can sulk through the sunny days. In the gypsum caves, they can lie in a mass with hundreds of their brethren beneath the frost line, sluggish through the winter. Occasionally a hunter sees a few of the reptiles basking on rocks on a clear winter day—then he knows he’s near a den of them.

The diamondback survives by plugging itself like a sizzling power cord back into the earth. After traveling for miles in the summer, the snake finds its way back to the same den each winter. The young home in on an ancestral den they have never seen. The senses that guide this miraculous slithering journey are unknown. Rattlesnakes are known to have a heat-detecting sense and an extraordinarily acute chemical sense. Some think they can also navigate by the sun.

A researcher I knew spent a great deal of money for radio signaling devices. He captured rattlesnakes and operated on them to implant the devices. Then he tracked the snakes for a year, through their warm-weather wandering and hunting and mating and their autumn return. On the maps where he plotted his data, the migrations of the snakes might have diagrammed solid particles sucked into the swirling mouth of a drain.

I asked the researcher what could explain such a feat of navigation.

“Nothing,” he said.

The bats are an ancient order of mammals, diversified into 900 species. Human beings have never quite known what to make of them. They’ve been classed as cousins of the monkeys and brothers of the rodent, though modern science claims they’re no relation to either. Old myths explained them as symbols of luck or denizens of Hell. When Cortés came to America and found a kind of bat that drank blood, his reports only echoed the European legends of winged succubae and soul-takers.

The strangest aspect of bats—their mastery of echolocation—is now common knowledge, but it was greeted as a fool’s fantasy when a scientist first described it in 1938. The bat lives in a world painted in shades of its own voice. The various species speak in different ranges, so that a scientist with an ultrasound detector can tune his machine to read the species he’s interested in. Individual bats have distinctive voices. In a maternity colony, the mothers return from their nightly hunts to find their young, and each mother detects her own pup among the multitudes by the sound of his voice. Some bats seem to read textures with sonar as well as a human can by touch. They can distinguish between a thrown pebble and a hard-shelled beetle. A bat knows whether insects are approaching or receding. He instinctively grasps the Doppler effect their movement has on the frequency of his returning voice. He reads them as a meteorologist reads the track of a thunderstorm.

Some of a bat’s sensory feats are beyond our grasp. No one knows, for example, how a bat finds its way on long journeys. A bat taken many kilometers from home can find its way back, as dogs are said to do. Some scientists think the bat navigates by the stars. Others think it is tuned to the magnetism of the earth.

At dusk I sat with the professionals and the volunteers on wooden benches facing west. Our scattered party had gathered with the gloom. Another kind of party was about to disperse.

“The State’s official estimate is one million bats in this colony,” said Davis. “Personally, I think it’s more.” He was whispering to me, because he didn’t want to interrupt the discussion the other professionals were leading. They were bringing the volunteers to the climax of their indoctrination, formulating the larger meaning of the natural text they had explicated all day. Their message was one of conservation, under which, no longer disguised in the facts of biology, lay a sort of religious belief. Rena spoke of individual molecules cycling unchanged through stone, grass, herbivore, predator, larger predator, until they finally wash to the sea. Another biologist spoke of food chains and an “energy flow” that binds every living thing.

One of the volunteers read out an essay on “energy flow” which the professionals had recommended to him. As he read in the failing light, attempting a certain dramatic flare, someone whispered urgently, “They’re out!”

Suddenly everyone was pointing and whispering, trying to locate the single bat the colony had sent out as a scout. The volunteer read on, unwilling, I suppose, to interrupt his sacred text. Despite the gloom, the buttes still looked red as sunburn. But the vegetation was graying toward darkness. The opening of the colony cave is somewhere in one of the buttes, though the professionals wouldn’t say exactly where. Rena had admitted to me earlier that the nature walk isn’t merely educational. It’s also meant to disorient the tourists so they can’t return to find the bat cave on their own and despoil it.

Everything was silent except for the voice of the reading volunteer and the quiet call of a wood duck. A power line ran behind the buttes, and on it sat a dark silhouette. “There he is, same as usual,” someone whispered. It was a great horned owl. I’d seen them before, watching the night with eyes like fractured amber, eyes that seem to return your gaze. When they take off they often leave a stinking pile in which you can find undigested bones, if you have the stomach for such an inquiry. This one knew the schedule of the bats. It came to take one of the million every night.

We kept straining our eyes for the scout. Two nighthawks crossed the quiet air in front of the buttes, the white bands on their dark wings flashing each time they turned. They, too, had come to prey.

Suddenly, a few bits of something were floating in the air between two buttes. They might have been shrapnel from a slow explosion. They rose. Everyone was whispering excitedly, and the eager volunteer finally finished his reading and watched with the rest of us. The bits of shrapnel became more numerous, forming a column which broadened at the top to resemble a silent tornado. The tornado moved toward us. Suddenly the twilight sky over our heads was pocked with uncountable puncture wounds, moving without a noise to the east. The silence was relative. To some of the insects and birds out that night, the conglomerate of sound must have been louder than nearby thunder. It was simply too high-pitched for human ears.

Occasionally one bat flew a little lower than the rest, and I could see the shape of the thing, its rapid wings appearing as short, sharp triangles cowled in the ghost of their own motion. Each of the professionals raised a hand and rubbed the fingers together as if contemplating a snap. They were making a little bug-noise to draw the bats down into better view.

A few moments before, I had been only subliminally aware of the insect life around me—moths popping out the undergrowth, gnats venturing too close to my eyes, an occasional mosquito bite. Now I was acutely aware of the absence of insect life. This one colony of mothers is said to scour tons of insects from the sky every night, each bat devouring half her body weight or better to maintain her flying heart-rate of 900 beats per minute.

At a distance you don’t see the eating itself. Most people seem to visualize the process as a neat one, the bat gulping insects like a ramjet eats air. In fact, bats eat as messily as anyone else. If necessary, they snag insects with their wings or tails and toss them toward their mouths. They puncture insect husks with their canine teeth and grind down the shells with their molars. You may get lucky enough to see a pair of butterfly wings wafting down, the body devoured from between them.

The birds of prey left, having silently taken their prey in the confusion of the emergence. The wind changed, and the bats turned to the south. They were still streaming out of the cave, and now, seen from a different angle, they looked like particles swept along in an invisible river. And the river wound into deepening dark, streaming beyond the range of human vision.

Gordon Grice grew up in rural Oklahoma.  He is  a writer based in California and the author of two books on wildlife: The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators and Deadly Kingdom.