The big brown bat could be the key to a great green future


Every house needs a fan in the summer. Every house in Michigan in the summer needs a fan and a screen door. The fan pretends to move the air around. The screen pretends to keep the bugs out. Our house in Michigan has no fan, and yet when I look up from looking at the television as I sit in the hot living room, sweating and swatting at flies, something brown and fan-like gyres on the ceiling. There is a bat in my house. I fall to the floor, army-crawl my way out of there. I barely like fans. I cannot stand bats.


Carol Chambers, a professor in the School of Forestry at Northern Arizona University, works with bats. She tucks her hair behind her ear. I, who do not work with bats, worry my hair and twirl and twirl it between my fingers. I shouldn’t do this, I know: after all, everyone knows bats love to get tangled up in people’s hair. Chambers probably thinks I’m one big bat lure. But she wouldn’t mind if one got stuck in my hair, or her hair, either, for that matter. She thinks bats are great.

She tells me, “I always wanted to work with bats. I like being out at night, and I think they are really interesting creatures, and we don’t know a lot about them because they are harder to study. They are very fast, they are in the dark, and humans aren’t really adapted to being fast in the dark in general.”

Bats are the antithesis of humans. Humans are not fast in the dark. Humans are slow and stumbling and prone to army-crawling their way out of tough spots.


Humans are naturally optimistic. We think we can crawl our way out of all tight spots. This global warming thing? We’ll figure it out, we tell ourselves. Technology has always saved us before. In London, during the Industrial Revolution, whole houses were coated in soot from coal fires burning in chimney after chimney. The advent of natural gas as well as filters for coal-processing plants saved the London skyline from permanent darkness. Now that the skies are clear (or, at least, clearer than they were) but the air is as hot as a greenhouse, we look at greenhouse technology. We will find a way to air-condition this whole planet. Open the window! we say. Let out the hot air! A giant fan is all we need. Maybe something for the giant aphids. Whitewash the windows. It’s going to be fine.

We like to look at the bright side of life.

The dark side we’ll leave to the bats.


The most logical way to get a bat out of your house is to open the screen door and talk him out. “Go on, bat. Go.” Bats hear two ways—the same way humans do, plus they echolocate. You repeat yourself in highly resonant tones. “Go away bat go away bat go away bat go,” you sing. The mosquitoes fly in. The bat flies around. The bat seems to fly outside. You close the screen door. You think he’s gone. Why would a bat stick around? What use are you to him? You and your new mosquito friends ask each other: if he can hear you twice as well, why won’t he listen?

Carol Chambers also likes bats because they are so useful. “Bats do a lot of things for the planet. They help control insects because some bats feed on insects. Other bats feed on nectar or pollen or fruits of plants so they can help pollinate or spread plants.” Bats help keep mosquitoes in check. She is currently studying to what degree bats keep mosquitoes at bay. When you’re camping and the sun goes down, the mosquitoes come out. The bats follow. More people are bitten by mosquitoes than bats. One would hope.

Humans have a biological belief in regeneration. We cut our toenails, and they grow back. Every four to six weeks, according to our hair stylist, we should make another appointment to have our hair cut. We sit and stare in the mirror and make conversation about wind and Flagstaff. You tell the hairdresser that you heard that within our lifetime, the Ponderosa Pines will have died out from drought, bark beetles, and fire. She shrugs her shoulders. She’s from Phoenix. It’s already brown there. Dead as hair. Every year, the monsoons come even though they keep saying they won’t.

My students in Michigan told me their parents kept tennis rackets around for bat outbreaks or infiltrations. A bat is a fragile thing. Softer than a tennis ball, it relents almost too easily. You can’t kill bats. They’re protected. But you can encourage them to leave your house and never come back.

I had Critter Gitter come to the house. They got no critters, but they did place loose nets on any hole greater than a quarter that led into the house. It’s called an indoor/outdoor barrier system. The bats can slide through the net to leave, but they can’t get back in. Gravity. Bargaining with the bats to take up their tennis elsewhere.

Is it a human’s great gift or her great curse that her first thought is What about my children? Before I had kids, I had all kinds of causes. Save the whales. Save the cougars. Stop people from overwatering their lawns. Protest pulp plants. Neuter stray cats. Now that I have kids, I have one cause: make sure my kids survive the day. I am still an activist. My tools are carrots. Seat belts. Helmets. Sunscreen. The sun shivers at my ability to deploy an amount of sunscreen worthy an eclipse.

In the night, I am awakened by a noise. I run down the stairs, thinking that somehow Zoe, my two-year-old, has crawled out of bed and fallen down or someone has broken in to kidnap her. I run the stairs. I do not take my tennis racket. Something touches my shoulder. Burglar. Rapist. Killer. I drop to the floor and scream bloody murder. There is a bat trapped in my hair.

That’s it. I’m moving. I’m outta here. Leaving Michigan. Moving to Arizona where there is no water and therefore no bugs and double therefore no bats.

There are bad things in the forest. Most of them are not bats. Most of them are human-made. For an Arizona Daily Sun article about the 2002-2003 pinyon-juniper die-off, Cyndy Cole spoke with Neil Cobb, director of Northern Arizona University’s Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research. “About 16 percent of the Southwest’s forests have had ‘massive’ mortality in recent years—25 to 75 percent of the trees in a stand are dead,” he said. “As it gets warmer and the likelihood of extreme events increases, yes, we definitely predict that these massive outbreaks and die-offs will continue.”

The evidence of global warming is overwhelming. So overwhelming that it whelms the brain. Overwhelmed, you look around. You make statements contrary to predictions. The weather is actually cooler this year. The rain: it soaks the ground. The snowpack this year is better than it was in 1913. The human capacity to argue anecdotally is the best way the human inoculates herself against her biggest fears. 

My favorite is this idea: global warming will be better, not worse. Maybe it won’t be drier; it will be wetter. Arizona, soaked, will be tropical. Rivers will flow. Mosses will grow. It will be Oregon all over again. Our big, bold, hopeful brains.

Twelve minutes later, the bat is spinning in circles. He is flapping like a bird, flying like a bird, and even though you know he’s not a bird, he’s a metaphor for a bird. But birds as metaphors usually signal life and light and hope. Bats signal vampires, bloody teeth. An open, screaming, biting mouth.

You open the screen door and find a broom. Maybe you can guide him out with more encouragement than song. For a while, you think, He’s gone. And then you look up at the columns protruding from a shelf near the ceiling. What are those columns hiding? One bat? For all you know, a cloud of bats is just waiting up there to rain sheer terror down upon you.

This is a truth that is not a metaphor: neither a bat nor a bird in the house is a good sign.

I try to peek around the columns from behind the kitchen door. I can’t see anything. But, now, with so many mosquitoes in the house, why would he leave? Why would any bat leave the mosquito-filled comfort of my home?

Carol Chambers does not think of vampires in her research. The idea of pointy fangs and wind screeching through night wings doesn’t bother her in the least. “Bats are very diverse,” she points out. “You can find a species of bat that does about any service for us on the planet that you can imagine. With over 1,100 species in the world, they are the second most diverse order that we have for mammals, and they are found on almost every continent.” You can see on her face the way she loves the numbers.

Bats are suffering in the eastern half of the United States. White nose syndrome is a kind of fungus that is killing off huge numbers of them. In addition to causing an unmistakable white growth around the nose, the fungus appears to make bats lose their bearings—forget what is night and what is day. Chambers has heard of whole bat colonies dying in the East. Is the white nose fungus coming this way? Yes, probably. Chambers and her research colleagues catch bats by the lake. They use Q-tips to swab bats’ noses to check for fungus. They use Lady Remington electric razors to shave the fur from the skin, into which they insert needles and transmitters and other signals so that the indicator bats can do their indicating.

Not everything that goes comes back. A lizard’s tail, yes; an amputated leg, no. A patch of crab grass, yes; a potted geranium, no. The skin on the roof of your mouth after you eat a too-hot bite of pizza, yes; the skin you sliced off the top of your finger with your mandolin, no. Winter, yes. Spring, yes. Summer, usually. Tulips, often.

Water evaporating off a pool in Phoenix comes back as rain upon Lake Superior. If Phoenix builds a pipeline from Lake Superior to Arizona, it will just claim it’s taking its water back, so yes and no.

The boyfriend who borrowed four thousand dollars and sang Donovan—Yellow is the color of my true love’s hair—no. The boyfriend who still needs four thousand dollars, yes. The father who died when you were twenty-six? Not so much, unless you think on the grand scale: what was once a body, the inhabitant of which spent hours in the garage manipulating the sprinkler system so that not even one patch of lawn would turn brown, comes back as grass when you scatter his ashes across the Salt Lake Valley. Well, then. Yes. Everything does come back.

Unlike mine, Carol Chambers’s grandpa was not bitten by a rabid bat. My grandfather, camping with his Silverstream, grilling burgers by the fire, minding his own business, not even keeping mosquitoes about him, sprayed a bucket of DEET over his skin. Over the meat, he sweated his own cloud of poison.

Out of the green of the trees, something brown raced toward him. It seemed to like him particularly. Or want him. Or want to get rid of him. It was hard to tell in the spin and gyre. My grandpa raised his arm to fend off the thing that flew right at him out of the darkness of the pine trees. He flailed and he flung, but the bat still bit him right on the neck.

He had flailed enough that he knocked the bat dead. My grandmother got him in the truck and towed him and the Silverstream back to the city.

Both my grandmother and my grandfather, having grown up near rivers and lakes and forests, knew enough about rabies to bring the bat to the hospital with them.

Carol Chambers doesn’t mind handling bats. One of her colleagues doesn’t even use gloves to pull a bat out of the net. When Chambers holds the bat, she strokes its neck to calm it down. Her main challenge: not to break the wing, as thin as parchment. The bat, fluttering in her hand, makes the challenge hard. Sometimes, they bite at her. I wonder if humans, like dogs, can get preventative rabies shots. It seems rude, after I see a bat bite her in the thin web between her thumb and forefinger, to ask if she’s worried about catching the disease. “The three outbreaks of animals that we captured with rabies were skunks, striped skunks, foxes,” she tells me. “I think there was a ringtail, and there was a domestic cat, but most of the animals were skunks and foxes. What was unusual is there are a lot of different strains of rabies, but the virus that has been detected in these animals locally is the strain that comes from bats, from a specific bat called the big brown bat.”

But the rabies outbreak seems to be taking a break. Fewer bats, therefore fewer skunks, foxes, and cats with rabies.

I like that my cat doesn’t have rabies, but that doesn’t assure me completely.

Rabies is something else that always comes back.

What we’re afraid of isn’t what we think we’re afraid of. I’m not afraid of actual bats or actual rabies. If Carol Chambers held a bat in her hand and asked me to pet it, I would. What I’m afraid of is that as I’m sitting on my deck on the edge of the neighborhood they call “the country club” (even though the country club is not at all like where I live), a bat will fly down from his sky-camouflaging heights and land on my shoulder and bite my neck. I am alone on this deck. I used to look out at trees. Now I can see clear to the lake where the bats dip and swirl between meals of mosquitoes. My deck is made out of dead wood. My view is mostly dead wood. The fires are coming. It’s just me and the bats now.

Perhaps I am afraid of intimacy.

It was a good move, in many ways except this one: after Texas, Arizona hosts the most bats.

“Here, around Flagstaff, we have bats that are mostly insectivorous; they eat bugs,” Carol Chambers tells me. “But if you go into the tropics or other parts of the world, you’ll find bats that feed on other kinds of food—whether it’s insects, nectar, fruits, or so on. These animals can help our lives by revegetating areas, by spreading seeds, by pollinating plants, or simply by eating the bugs, like mosquitoes, that are going to chew on us.”

The first thing I notice about the new house in Arizona is the guano around the perimeter of the house. On the upstairs deck, I look up. I see a hole bigger than a quarter. No netting to convince the bat to leave and not come back. We live in “the country club.” You would think we could distract the bats with tennis.

We’ll get our green somehow in Arizona, even if it means turning whole tracts of brown land into golf courses.

One rare thing about our neighborhood is the number of tiny man-made lakes. Mainly, they serve as water traps for golfers and water features for the houses surrounding the course. And for birds. And for bugs. Chambers says there are large numbers of bats in the country club area because that’s where the golf course water traps are. “Because if you think about a bat that is pregnant and gives birth—the bat is a mammal, so she is nursing her young with milk and she needs a lot of water. We’re in a dry environment, so that kind of water really provides a great resource for a mother bat.” But I’m a mother, too. What about my kids? They like to play outside when the sky turns pink and the shadows of their scooters loom large. They have enough to watch out for—cars speeding down the road, neighbor kids not inviting them to play. Do they have to watch out for rabies, too?

If you take a ponderosa forest that was once green and lush, at least by Arizona standards, and you dry it out, burn it down, or eat it up, the brown will haunt you. It will hover in the shadows of what is now short stacks of fallen logs. Brown will tower over you, dripping regret onto you as your ponderosa once dripped sap. You will hear in the night a wild whirl. You used to be afraid of wind. Now you’re afraid of a lack of it.

When my grandfather brought the dead bat in, the hospital tested its flattened body for rabies. The bat had it. As I remember it, my grandfather went to the doctor once a month for four years to have the two-inch, four-gauge needles injected into his stomach, where—I imagined—the rabies virus swirled and fermented and threatened to boil over. My grandfather had few friends. The nurse he saw every month became one. He invited her to church where he could promise her the second coming.

There are over a thousand species of bats. Chambers doesn’t like bats just because they are warm and cozy or because she has a strong ability to discern reality from fantasy. She likes them not only for their usefulness but for their godliness. If bats can revegetate whole areas destroyed by volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, maybe they can revegetate whole forests. Maybe bats—with their fur, their ears, their wings, their flight—are the anti-man. Maybe that’s what scares us the most. It will take the big brown bat to make the planet green again.

I imagine a big brown bat flying over the one-time ponderosa forest now covered scantily with juniper. The bat lands on a nearly fossilized ponderosa pinecone that still has a bit of pollen on it. Days later, the bat, rabid or not, lands on another pinecone. This flying mammal brought together pinecones.

Matchmaker bat. The ground, with the help of enough bats, will turn green again.

Humans—browning, deadening force that they can be—aren’t worse than other forces of nature. Think of them as big tornadoes or asteroids or volcanoes. Not much better at forethought than earthquake or fire, humans do have appetite and awareness of immediate danger going for them. We shouldn’t hate them anymore than we hate bats. Both can live in trees or houses. Both fear the Lady Remington. Both can spread disease. Both can revegetate. Look at my greenhouse! Look at my forest! Both keep bugs at bay—some by eating them, some with DEET. Both are alert to things coming at them in the dark.

The main difference? Humans are able to change their minds about what they like and don’t like, but bats will be bats. Bats don’t like humans to catch them in nets. They don’t like tennis rackets. They don’t like the way humans heat up the Earth or fire down all the forests. They may continue to experience the Lady Remington, but they won’t change their minds about how they feel about it. It’s hard to imagine that bats will change their minds about any of these things.

But humans can change their minds. Maybe this means they can change their behavior, too. Negotiate a different future. Maybe even learn to like the night.

I am working hard to change my mind. When I sit out on my porch at night, I look between the ponderosa pines. I force myself to stay outside and watch the bats. I still bend and duck when I see them diving at my neck, but I am learning to like them. I have to. I have to learn to like brown if I want any green in the future.

About the Author

Nicole Walker

Nicole Walker is the author of two forthcoming books, Sustainability: A Love Story and Microcosmology. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg.

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