Bats, Slivovitz, and all the things we do not know exist
One morning last March, I looked up to see my neighbor, Lazlo striding in my direction. He was holding something small with both hands, fingers pinched fingers in a way that made the object look like it was hanging from a clothesline. His pace made me think of a man who had just made up his mind about something. When he was in front of me, he thrust out his arms, “here,” he said. I took what I saw was some sort of animal in more of a reaction than a decision, mimicking Laszlo’s hold. Then I realized what I had.
“Laszlo, did you just hand me a bat?” I answered my own question with a closer look at the leathery wings stretched between my fingers. Millions of years of evolution had nudged hands more like mine into long, graceful, webbed fingers and shaped the thumb into a tiny claw. “Why did you give this to me?”
“It’s bat. It’s not flying. You fixing it,” Laszlo said and with a grunt, turned in the direction of his house and left.
I had been on my way to photograph wildflowers at some Rivers & Lands Conservancy’s properties I hadn’t seen yet. My friend Jack was driving and had witnessed the bat hand-off. Jack was the perfect wildflower walk guide because he was a biologist and also our retired executive director. I stretched out my arms to Jack asking what to do with the bat. Jack shrugged.
“You’re a biologist,” I said.
“You’re an animal trainer and I’ve never handled a bat before,” he said.
I hadn’t either and as the bat hissed its displeasure, I tried to think of whose phone number I had that was a bat expert. Nothing immediately came to mind. So, after a couple of failed attempts to get the bat to climb up my pine tree from gloved hands, (Seriously, I know nothing about what a bat wants.) We tucked it beneath a jasmine bush. It seemed like it was dense enough to keep the bat hidden and that the branches were low and thick enough to hold its weight hanging. It was the best I could do for the moment.
Laszlo had found the bat lying on the side of the street, barely moving, but it seemed to have no injuries or obvious illnesses. I hoped for the best and glancing back and forth between Googled images and the photos in my phone I started trying to figure out its species. I asked Jack how many species of bats there were in California.
“I don’t know. Three? Four?” he answered.
“You’re a biologist,” I said. “You should know.”
“You’re an animal trainer,” he answered.
There are actually more than a dozen species of bats in California and everything I knew about them was generic. We love bats. They eat tons of insects. They cannot see well. They use echo location. They live in caves and attics. Thousands are killed by windmills. They can carry rabies and if you get bit, you need to have the bat tested for rabies which kills it. So, it’s best for the bat that you not get bitten. Most of that is correct, but it wasn’t half the story I found out.
The bat we had set up in the bushes for the day had a thick coat of salt-and-pepper hair and a golden collar. The appropriately named hoary bat, it turned out, is a migratory tree bat and transcontinental. One of the larger species, they tend to be solitary, migrating to warmer climates rather than roosting communally. In 2016, scientists demonstrated that hoary bats utilize both torpor and short hibernations as well.
They are not considered endangered, but all of these attributes make them hard to spot, let alone trap and tag, and therefore difficult to study. Biologists know very little about their reproductive behaviors, habitat requirements, and demographics. They are a mystery to scientists and now they were my mystery as well. There had likely always been hoary bats napping in my pines when I was looking for birds in the daylight. Yet, I had to have one in my hands to know that it existed.
It suddenly seemed fitting that Laszlo had been the one to put it in my hands. Laszlo and his wife moved in across the street from me almost two years ago. Living out their golden years, the two Hungarians immediately adopted me. To be honest, the whole bat incident shouldn’t have been surprising. Laszlo is notorious in my anecdotes for doing things like stopping me as I’m pulling out of my driveway to ask, “Hey! Do you want to see two naked men in a hot tub?” He was heading to the hot springs with his buddy, but that didn’t make the invitation more appealing or keep me from laughing the whole way to my meeting.
They have become my Hungarian grandparents and I have learned a great deal about east European booze, food, history, and culture from them. Over many 5 o’clock teas (in which the tea is actually shots of Slivovitz) I have reveled in the small, delightful things that have worked their way from their unknown world into my vernacular. My favorite, perhaps, is that raccoons are called “wash bears” in Hungarian. We spoke of wash bears because I told Laszlo to stop feeding them. When he didn’t listen, the wash bears came in through his cat door, did their washing in his kitchen sink, and then one of them ran off with the cat door stuck around his chubby midsection. Wash bears, indeed.
wo years ago, I wasn’t sure where Hungary was on the map. Last year, I didn’t know there were migratory bats in my pines. And what I’ve learned so far probably doesn’t even scratch the surface of what to me is mysterious geography. How wonderful that nature, including its humans, has more than a lifetime of surprises to delight the curious.
When Jack and I returned to my house, the bat was hanging upside down in the jasmine with its wings tight around its body and its furry tail draped between its feet like a blanket. It looked so much like a crumpled hanging leaf that I stared into the foliage for a long while before its silhouette resolved into a bat in my mind. I left it with a thimble-sized bowl of water and when I checked again just after sunset, it had flown off.
I went across the street to tell Laszlo the good news. I also shared that I thought it had probably been knocked out of tree while it was in torpor from the cold snap we had just experienced. Laszlo was delighted that he had saved it. “See. I knew you were the right person to take it to,” he said.
I know I wasn’t the best person to be given a bat, but maybe I was the right person. I hope I can always be the right person to open my arms and my eyes for the sake of awe and discovery.
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