Why a French summer evening filled with a swooping clan of bats has stayed with me for decades

 

Naturally, I was delighted to discover these crepuscular clans of tiny, leather-clad aviators.

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It was an unusually wet summer, warm and verdant in a way that put me in mind of Hildegard von Bingen’s viriditas, the dark, vegetal energy that governs all living things. I was staying in northern France, in a house surrounded by deep, sweetly-shaded woods and wide clearings where the grass grew high and lush and implausibly green. To begin with, it was altogether idyllic. My first walk in the forested grounds revealed a darker landscape, however, for the area was dotted with graveyards from the First World War, the stunning white gleam of the headstones an eerie reminder that this region had seen the most brutal carnage of the last century. Lush it may have been that wet summer, but not so long before, the soil had been heavy with blood. I felt uneasy at times, wandering the forest paths, knowing that this greenwood was nourished on the bodies of young men, far from home and bewildered by the fate that had befallen them.

Maybe I am just too superstitious for my own good, but after a while, unable to shrug off the sense of being watched on my afternoon excursions, I began working non-stop through the days and only going out at evening time, when the air was cool and the woodland glades were touched with a soft, almost violet haze. At first, I felt pleasantly melancholic on these evening strolls, and enjoyed the quiet; it wasn’t long, however, before I saw the first of my most numerous and least anticipated neighbours – and soon I was seeing them everywhere.

Bats. Someone had told me about them when I first arrived: the estate was dotted with derelict outbuildings that made perfect roosting sites, and in this hot, damp season the air was thick with flying insects, a nightly feast for chauve-souris. Naturally, I was delighted to discover these crepuscular clans of tiny, leather-clad aviators, and it wasn’t long before these evening walks were the highlight of my day.

When I was moving, of course, I only saw them from a distance. But I quickly learned that if I stopped and hunkered down in the long grass they would fly so close overhead that I could feel the movement, one long swipe through the soft air, followed by another, and then another, until my mind was swooning in a sort of vertiginous sympathy.

The bats were beautiful, not just individually but en masse; to feel them circle around the clearings, darting back into the trees and then out again, was like being included in some kind of group sensibility, a clan intelligence that I had never felt before. Maybe dancers or synchronised swimmers share this sense of common movement, but for me it was new and, in its own strange way, it felt like a privilege. Those evenings have stayed with me for decades, along with my first encounter with the local cat – a large ginger beast that I hadn’t seen in the daytime.

Maybe it was a blow-in from the nearby village but, like me, the cat appeared to know that, if it stayed very still, the bats would flit right over its head, swooping down into the tall grass to feed – and that, of course, was what it was waiting for, a cruel local god exercising its instinctive, deadly gift for clawing small bodies out of the air. I didn’t stay for the outcome of this hunt: as soon as I saw where things were headed, I turned and fled. Which was foolish of me, I know. Bats hunt insects and, given the chance, cats hunt bats; but that summer, for reasons of my own, I had to admit that I wished it wasn’t so. 

Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening

This article appears in the 31 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy