If you’ve been following the weather news in the US this summer, you know that we’re having a strange year in the PNW.
Let me tell you what it looks like out here in Hood River:
Cicadas and katydids everywhere, but no grasshoppers or praying mantids.
No frogs, no salamanders, and the lowest water levels I’ve ever seen.
Hot, hot, hot, and as dry as old bleached bones.
Early pears and late tomatoes.
Eight solid inches of dry, shifting dust before my trowel turns up fertile soil.
Forest fires and droughts and worry, worry, worry.
Spiders EVERYWHERE, people. EVERYTHING IS SPIDERS.
Blond freeway shoulders and crispy tree branches.
Algal blooms in lakes and even in the sluggish parts of the mighty Columbia.
Last month’s fire-blackened hills, still dark and barren and dry nearly six weeks later.
The mountains bare-faced and black on the horizon, ominous and brooding.
In short, it’s been a year for making sure that small children know the emergency preparedness plan, and scratching out anxious lists of evacuation supplies, and conserving every drop of water, and looking out of car windows and wondering how our beautiful home will survive this.
My touchstone through this trying season has been putting our flock away for the night. In the cool breeze of dusk, I slip my feet into a pair of Robert’s old shoes, comically large on me, fill a quart jar nearly to the top with sweet-smelling scratch, and climb the terrace steps to the chicken yard.
I listen to the crickets and the calling of the poorwills and the nighthawks, I smell the neighbors’ barbeque cooking away, and I fill the hopper for the hens, who add their gentle berka-berka-berka chattering to the vespers. I refill their water bottle, the cool liquid on my fingertips nearly salvation after a day of pseudo-desert living, and slot it back into place. “Goodnight, chickens.” I murmur as I secure the henhouse roof, completing my task.
I put away the jar and the shoes in the sunroom, and as I walk barefoot across the deck to go back into the house, I stop and rest for a moment on the bench. Often one or both of the smalls will join me, and we keep a steadfast vigil on the little patch of twilight sky to the northeast, over the confluence of the Hood and Columbia rivers, with its little border of aspen and pine.
Breathless and silent in the fading light, we wait.
Every night I wonder if they won’t come, if something has happened and they’re all dead somewhere or fleeing to better hunting grounds. But every night, they come.
Fluttering across the clearing so fast our limited human eyes can barely see them against the darkening sky, the bats make their first forays into the night air. They are most likely long-legged myotis bats, we have learned, this swift-winged vanguard of the night, but it doesn’t really matter what kind they are. What matters is that they’re there.
Every night, without fail, the bats come out to feast on the crepuscular insects and spiders that have overwhelmed us this summer. Even though these temperate bats are sensitive to human disturbance, and rely heavily on imperiled forest habitat and fleeting, drought-banished dew to survive, they have never failed me.
The piping voices of the tree frogs may be silent this year, and the afternoon frighteningly devoid of the chipping whir of grasshopper flight, but the bats are still here, and doing fine.
And, as I wait for rains that may never come, or may totally overwhelm the parched soil and wash away houses, bridges, cars, and human lives into the rapids, the bats bring me some fragile reassurance.
I look up, with faith and trembling, and when I see those tenacious flying mammals racing silently and chaotically through the dusky sky, I know that I am seeing part of that wild invisible web that sustains our fragile lives on this planet. I know that I am watching nature take one of her courses, albeit a tiny one, and I feel a corresponding, wicked-winged speck of hope flash across the clearing of my heart.
Because maybe, just maybe, if the bats can make it, there’s some hope for the rest of us, though we are truly grounded and insensate by comparison.
And that is why I take time out of my busy day and away from my life of artifice to look for the bats.
What do you look for, to give you hope in these dark days?