I moved to East Central Pasadena about a year ago. The first thing that happened: after a two-week quarantine of the two cats, I opened the kitchen door one blazing-hot morning– September 29, to be specific.
And that’s the date that Nigella, a ravaged, hauntingly beautiful feral/stray (yes, I do know that there is a difference) I had fed for eight years before I ever even touched her, starting around the year 2001, then moved her with me to the wilds of Mendonoma, then moved her back to LA in 2010, sauntered out my kitchen door a year ago and has not returned.
Like Richard Parker. May I quote “The Life of Pi”: “My fierce companion left me unceremoniously.”
I was and still am heartsick. She had been yowling and howling and clawing for the two weeks she was in captivity. Her pattern had been, for all those years, to depart via the bedroom window around dawn, and return around dinnertime, or whenever she damn well pleased.
Some boyfriends do the same.
Soon after Nigella vanished, I realized the new house is situated right near Eaton Canyon– a local then told me that it’s known here as “Eaton Kitty.” Translation: Canis Latrans. Translation: coyotes, which some neighbors have seen loping north up Altadena Boulevard, toward the foothills. The logo for Eaton Canyon “Natural Area” is a silhouette of a yowling coyote, old Trickster spirit.
Ironic, since mountain lion sightings were common in Mendonoma, where Nigella grew her most luxuriant coat against the year-round hissing sleet. Also bobcats. Also the Lyme disease-infected ticks I picked off her face every night.
So, here I am in E Central Pasadena, dusk, sucking back a just-freezy-squeezy Corona, sitting on my kitchen door step, staring at the parched backyard where Nigella took the last steps I would ever watch her take. Perhaps she’s happily living with a nice family in Bungalow Row, minutes west of here — Akine Hora.
Then I look up, and I see a bird wheeling in erratic twerks. What younger people would call “random”.
And I realize what I am seeing are bats.
I had a similar moment of epiphany when I was on Sydney for a business trip. I had ,um, skipped school (I was a conference speaker, and I already knew my shtick by heart–WTF????) to visit the famed botanical gardens. I was walking toward some trees, seeing what I thought were big seed pods, like the pods of the kapok tree.
Then the pods began to move.
Then the pods began to fly.
The pods were not pods at all. They were bats. Hanging upside-down by the hundreds. In Sydney, they call them Flying Foxes. It was late in the day — I was supposed to be at some workshop or something equally horrifying. I broke out into a dead run, hoop earrings madly swinging, until I reached the gift shop and just about knocked over a kindly sort who was sweeping up.
He laughed, recognizing me as an urban American. He explained that these bats are not native to Oz, but had latched onto the Sydney botanical gardens recently as a constant and temperate food source. Their presence caused some controversy. Like so many arrivals, they came to Sydney and simply refused to leave. They are an introduced species and are not loved by all Australians.
That was my first contact with bats. They terrified me, only because they were so plentiful, and because I thought they were seed pods from a distance.
In Medonoma, I had another encounter with Vespertilionidae — their name drawn from “vespers”, Latin for “evening”. I kept seeing what looked like caraway seeds on the massive redwood deck. God knows I was jonesing for a good loaf of rye bread; the only fresh baked goods for 200 miles were the anvil-like buns and rolls located a few miles up Highway 1.
Then I looked at the eaves right above the decking and saw a clutch of moist little faces looking down at me from between the shingles: bats. The caraway seeds were in fact their dainty turds, I suspect lady-turds. Shiny, tiny shards. Desperadoes under the eaves. Perhaps a maternal colony, meaning all moms. Female bats cluster together when they are expecting baby bats, synchronize their birthing, and raise their pups communally– surely a sign of higher intelligence. I’ve also learned that she-bats generally only birth one pup a year. Unlike our dogs and cats, lady bats don’t have a trough-line of nipples. They have only two, so really can only nurse one baby at a time easily. And they do it hanging upside down: I cannot eradicate the image of Yoga Mom from my mind right now.
I’ve checked around, and the bats I am probably seeing over my yard here are called simply Big Brown Bats, Eptesicus Fuscus. “Eptesicus” is a word derived from the Greek, meaning “house flyer.” Since we’ve eradicated most of their natural terrain, this bat, along with hundreds of others species, has adapted skilfully to human habitation.
The Big Brown Bat isn’t really very big — about four to five inches long, with a wingspan of about a foot, weighing between 1/2 oz and 5/8 of an ounce. There are about 25 species of Eptesicus in the US. They tend to appear at dusk, just as the infernal heat begins to abate. They wheel and spin over the garage, snapping up insects (wasps, mosquitoes, crushing even hard-shelled beetles and dragonflies with their formidable jaws).
Rest easy: there are no vampire bats in North America, except in zoos. True, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, about 10 per cent of the bats they find and test do test positive for rabies. Bats are the animal most likely to be rabid in Los Angeles County. But even the LACDoHS acknowledges: the bats that they find and test are visibly sick, caught on the ground by dogs, or clinging weakly to the bark of suburban trees. The chances of your being bitten by a rabid bat in LA are on a par with Kim Kardashian calling your cell and asking you to join her for a Brazilian wax. You wish. Not gonna happen.
Still, as a public service: if your pet snags a bat, take the pet immediately to a vet. If you must handle a bat, dead or alive, put on rubber gloves and place the bat in a plastic bag. Call the law.
Right now, bats are fattening themselves up for mating and winter. It is extraordinary to watch them pitch and pivot in the dusky sky. A friend of Chinese heritage told me recently that the Chinese have always used bats as the symbol of longevity. It’s sort of a pun in the Chinese language: the word “Fu” means both bat and and good luck.
This bat (pictured above), carved I think from bone, was in my family’s junk drawer when I was growing up. It may be close to 100 years old. I had it made into a pendant and I’ve really never worn it until now.