Suburban nightlife

Ink wash drawing: an Eastern Red bat hangs from the branch of a conifer tree.

Last summer we got into the habit of watching the sun set from our deck. There’s a couple of old chairs; one is a rocking chair, one is not. We tend to race to claim the rocking chair.

Summer nights here are humid and close, but the air cools quickly. It’s a pleasure to step out the back door barefoot, the deck boards still warm underfoot from the scorching afternoon sun. There are usually cups in our hands. Tea, wine, something stronger. Robes on our shoulders. The light fades, the fireflies emerge below us, the stars above.

Our back yard is a busy place in the evening. Catbirds flutter from branch to branch until they inevitably discover the blueberry bushes my wife planted. They are determined to get past the netting we hung around them in the (probably vain) hope of eating blueberries ourselves. The catbirds are smart and usually find their way in. I enjoy watching the little gray birds hop around, enough that I’m willing to pay for the entertainment in their preferred currency. But I didn’t plant the blueberry bushes.

Meanwhile rabbits inhabit the yard in increasing numbers, trying to eat our blueberries themselves. They have much less luck than the catbirds. They cannot fly, and they seem to lack the cognitive firmware to deal with either obstacles or elevation, despite the fact that they get around by launching themselves into the air with their giant haunches. A row of short stones around the edge of a bed is usually enough to baffle them. They resign themselves to the clover.

There’s a family of foxes who live, I think, in the patch of woods down the street. They patrol the neighborhood every evening at sundown, whisking themselves from shadow to shadow with a determined, unhesitant silence I admire. They’re roughly the size of small dogs — terriers or spaniels, maybe — but they don’t move like dogs. They move in straight lines; they ignore fences and boundaries. They’re here for the rabbits, of course. Clover, rabbits, foxes: a neat food chain contained in half an acre.

Slugs begin their nightly journeys around this time, weaving tangled threads of slime around our walks. Their intricately spotted backs and vaguely structured, liquid bodies remind me of the more fanciful sea slugs I’ve seen in ocean documentaries. It reminds me that our yard is, likewise, on the bottom of a vast ocean of air, and we are the crablike things scuttling from shelter to shelter.

The slugs attract toads. A few have taken up residence around the garage and, hopefully, feast every night. That, perhaps, is one reason our flowers did better this year. Jackie and Evelyn have built a few toad houses to encourage them. Minuscule, domed bothies tucked into the grass or under hedges. Make yourselves at home, toads, and multiply.

My favorite neighbors, though, are the bats. They live, I think, in some corner of the garage attic, but that’s just a theory. They appear around dusk and pirouette around the cypress trees, scooping up mosquitoes and flies and moths and whatever else they can get hold of. They fly with a grace very different from that of a bird. Neither the rapid, curlicue flight of a songbird, tree to tree, nor the vulture’s deliberate, spy-plane loft. They trace a flappy, erratic path, semi-translucent silhouettes against the fading sky. They seem to spend as much time falling as flying, a barely-controlled tumble.

It reminds me a little of videos I’ve seen of aikido sparring; a chaos of bodies crumpling and inflating, hurling and being hurled, lofted and tumbling. The whole dance is a product of control so perfect that it’s hard to distinguish from surrender.

Bats fascinate me, in part, because they perplex me. They are the only mammal that can truly fly(Note: Defined as controlled, sustained flight under their own power. Some squirrels and lemurs can glide, but that’s really just a way to slow their fall.), and they can outfly mosquitoes. That’s extraordinary, but how do they do it? They perform their little aikido wonders with heavy, furry bodies, solid bones, and featherless “wings” that are really webbed membranes under their arms(Note: Or “forelimbs”, technically; they’re not really “arms” or “legs” like terrestrial mammals have, even though they evolved from the same bone structure.). In the dark, no less.

I’m going to figure it out. I have a stack of library books and I’ve fallen down a deep YouTube-and-podcast well. Stay tuned.