Sitting in a French garden in the skin-strokingly warm dark of an early summer evening, something swooped over my head and I yelped. It was a bat. No, I don’t believe in the legend that bats get in your hair. It’s just that I have tried and I cannot like them.
I’d like to say it’s because I have read too many Gothic tales but it isn’t true.
I rarely read gothic tales because for me the partition between truth and fiction is hairsbreadth, it hardly exists. The world is full of strange things and I lack the mechanism to say, much less believe, “It will never happen.”
Having witnessed a tall strong able woman in her late 20s regress into a frightened child before my eyes as she talked of parental abuse, the eyes are one thing, the ears are another. And if there are five senses you know about and a sixth you suspect, odd can be real.
Bats. Right. The title is the origin of the word. There is a derivation but not another dictionary synonym for bat.
We used to say “bats in the belfry” probably because of the “bs” but I can’t think of more than one or two belfries with which I have even nodding acquaintance. And maybe that vocal device is part of keeping the whole idea of a very large order of mammals, the only one with wings and leather wings at that, at arms’ length. My father’s maxim about “they’re more frightened of you than you are of them” wouldn’t console me remotely about bats. I’d like them to be frightened. Away.
I tried to watch a programme on bats recently, in a noteworthy cave (very deep and very old) in Mexico, the presenting naturalist reminiscent of David Attenborough enthusing over his pile of guano (bat poo to you). But I knew I was going to get windy, jumping at every shadow for the rest of the evening so it wasn’t worth it. I don’t like the look of them and I can afford not too. I don’t live in the country where I would be more likely to come across them and I don’t live in the enormous chunk of the world across which they range.
In Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia, bats are on the state flag, invaluable farmers. Fruit eating bats spread seeds, which is how vegetation survives and flourishes, and humans need it to. In Tonga the bat is sacred, probably because of this idea of its helping to grow food, and ancient peoples in Central America saw it as a magical animal, like the jaguar, a bridge between dark and light. Alongside the fruit eaters are the insect eaters, logically related. And then there are those that hunt for smaller animals or fish. You can still get your head round that, like an owl or other bird of prey.
And the vampire bats live on blood.
Although natural history records small incisions (and the Masai, distinguished nomadic people of Kenya and Tanzania drink blood the same way), we all know those apocryphal stories of Dracula, altered through creepy to dishy, from Louis Jourdan to Robert Pattinson, a hundred years of being consumed into alternate sexuality and the ultimate orgasm of death.
Martin Cruz Smith may be best known for his breakout novel Gorky Park but for me his finest book is about bats – “Nightwing” – and it draws attention to the number of bats, the way they collect, their ability to change and grow and how intelligent they are. It is very unsettling and it makes you think – and we have some thinking to do right now.
Because Ebola got its name in 1976 from the river in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the bug was first diagnosed, it was thought to come from fruit bats – which it did not harm – but the bug leapt to other animals including gorillas, chimpanzees, antelope and porcupine. In Africa bat meat is bush meat, for human consumption. And the bug spread through bodily fluids – blood, vomit, faeces, semen, breast milk, urine, tears, saliva and sweat. About which many in the West are becoming increasingly careless. (A friend told me about sharing the men’s room at a recent shoot with three other moneyed men and he was the only one who washed his hands.)
There is an old saying “An ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure “.
Protection is not “it will never happen here”. That cannot be guaranteed.
Protection is “it is less likely to happen here and you can make it less likely still by basic and unremitting hygiene.” Wash, think, be careful
Protection has always been hardest to teach the public.
Perhaps the bats will do it.