Monday, October 25, 2010

The flight of bats

Photograph from Google Images

The nature writer J A Baker described the flight of bats as 'dry freaking' - a typically casual description that belies the skill of his writing. In two words he captures the experience, and the phrase comes to mind whenever I see them on the wing.

This summer I have been watching the bats in the caves at Newgale. Occasionally, they fly in the day, hunting moths that stray into the ridge lift. On Saturday, one took to the air from a cleft in the sandstone - its lunatic pattern of tumbles and falls (do you see what I mean - dry freaking is so much better) mesmerised me for fifteen minutes.

Bats, more than any other animal, remind me of how extraordinary nature is. We know they are effectively blind, 'seeing' the world though sonic resonance and yet able to pick out a hover-fly in a force six coastal wind. How must the world appear to them, I pondered, pulling up the collar of my fleece and turning to the curved horizon of St Brides Bay.

The idea has long fascinated philosophers. Schopenhaur thought long about the grim and (in his view)  somewhat pointless existence of moles, leading him to his theory of Will and Representation as the ultimate force in life. Others, such as Kant, concluded the world as it is in itself  is unknowable - we are inherently limited by our experience and capacity to understand. (For a practical example of this, try imagining an entirely new colour.)

But my fascination with bats is less to do with philosophical meaning and more about the sheer oddness of the way they exist. It is, I suppose, the recognition of nature as 'other'; of it always being 'beyond' us, no matter how far 'above' it we may think we are. Of course, we are part of nature too, but we should avoid reducing it to our limited perceptions.

Earlier this year I met a former researcher from BBC Spring Watch.  She recognised the dilemma and empathised with my dislike of those wildlife documentaries that give lion cubs names like Sheeba or Shakira. The problem, she explained, was that without the anthropomorphism, the viewing figures plummeted.

That may be so, but I remain sceptical of the merits. The bats I watched on Saturday didn't require a name to be fascinating; still less did they require a narrative. Indeed, I'd argue words of any sort could never do them justice. Though admittedly, and through enviously gritted teeth,  I'd concede 'dry freaking' comes damn close.


  1. For me the names are a bar to enjoying the experience. I prefer the otherness left untouched and un-anthropomorphized... it's the only way to get to heart of nature... do realize that while humanity is part of it, nature itself is not human.

  2. Well, a less intellectual answer possibly, but I dislike the training of animals to do anything other than something useful, as in guide dogs, I dislike the way we talk to animals sometimes, like that habit people have of googooing at babies instead of using proper language. Don't like the way we give them names either, the anthropomorphism mentioned.
    I don't find bats in the least fascinating or likeable, but the swooping dance of birds in the sky, that's another matter.

  3. I shall miss the bats when we move.
    They come singly from the eaves in the evening, turning and tumbling, and later I can see..what, swarms?...of them against the sky.

    Naming the 'stars' of animal programmes always struck me as inappropriate, like trying to show someone a star by catching it and rolling it in the mud rather than by showing its reflection in a pool of water, leaving it uncontaminated.

  4. I love it. Bees can see more colours than we can, at both ends of the visible spectrum, and they can differentiate more finely between colours too. I wonder what they see?

    Personally I suspect that bats are creating a 3D model of the world using reflected sound very much as we do the same thing using reflected light. The sonar being like a torch to highlight different spaces as needed, memory serving as it does us, to maintain those bits of the model that we're no longer focusing on. I have absolutely no justification for this conceit except that it seems so practical.

    As an aside I also find it fascinating that humans blind from birth can learn to use sonar (clicking with their tongues) to construct a very useful world view. I read of a lad having learned to ride a bike this way without mishap.

    As another aside, when tuning a short wave radio along a band (something I did a lot of as a boy) I "see" the changing patterns of noise and signal against a dark background, without being able to describe what I see. I understand the research has shown the visual cortex to be involved in this processing.

    End of waffle.

  5. We ventured into a bat cave in France last autumn and it was very weird - I got a bit frightened and had to exit quite quickly - it was the smell more than anything that drove me out.

    As for naming animals - I've never understood why some people name their cars either.