The Front Porch: Talk batty to me

Column by John Warren

M

y folks were broke young marrieds in the early 1960s, and their Chautauqua home-by-necessity was the fourth floor of the “Annex” at The Ministers’ Union, now the ECOC.

Mom remembers the lumpy mattress, the cheap rent and the unpaying tenants. That is, the bats. In the attic above them, there was the rustling sound of bats — lots and lots of bats.

“Your father would point out the noise to me,” Mom told me recently. “But I didn’t care. We were paying $15 a week for the room.”

There’s the thing about Chautauquans and bats. They have always co-mingled peacefully. Bat wings carved into the latticing at the Athenaeum Hotel. Bat weather vanes on top of houses.

Bats flying in front of the screen at the Chautauqua Cinema? Part of the experience. Billy Schmidt, who owns the cinema, remembers a showing of 1979’s “Nosferatu the Vampyre.”

“There was thunder outside, and a bat got loose,” he said. “People were shrieking.”

That was the golden age of bats in Chautauqua, when workers used shovels to remove bat poo — called “guano” — from the rafters of the Amphitheater.

“You could watch from the west end of the Amphitheater and see hundreds of them coming out, like they were being shot out of a Gatling gun,” said Caroline Van Kirk Bissell. She’s Chautauqua’s self-proclaimed “Bat Lady.”

Every week for more than 15 years, Bissell has hosted a lecture called “Bat Chat” for the Bird, Tree & Garden Club. The lecture is at 4:15 p.m. every Wednesday of the season in Smith Wilkes Hall.

During the talk, Bissell circulates laminated photographs of bats, with handwritten captions such as “cute face,” “beautiful red bat,” and “gorgeous, gentle, spotted bat.”

The audience members shrink from images of the creatures with the menacing hiss-expressions.

Bissell tells the gathering that wind turbines kill many bats all the time. The statement is met with a collective shrug. Also, she says, bald eagles. The audience gasps.

She calls the crowd on the double standard. It’s Hollywood’s fault, Bissell says, this demonization of the bat.

“They do a tremendous amount for us,” she said of bats, running down a list of benefits that includes eating thousands of insects every night. They eat crop pests and pollinate plants. Their guano makes excellent fertilizer.

Researchers did some counts in the late 1980s and early ’90s in Chautauqua, and estimated 10,000 on the grounds. Then came a malady called the “White-Nose Syndrome,” beginning about 10 years ago. It wiped out 80 percent of bats in the northeastern United States.

Today, in Chautauqua, it’s hard to find any bats. Some are spotted by the Miller Bell Tower.

Some experts say the Little Brown Bat, the one most popular in Chautauqua, is doomed for extinction. The numbers don’t bear out well, Bissell said. Bats only produce one pup per year.

“I’m a realist,” Bissell said. “I believe it will be a very long time before we see them in Chautauqua again.”

If you want a Chautauqua bat fix, you’ll have to settle for the bookstore’s bat merchandise. Reads one T-shirt: “Chautauqua Night Crew: Working the Bugs Out.”

If only. The next time you swat your way through a cloud of lake gnats, offer a warm thought for our absent bat-friends.

Do you have some Chautauqua bat stories to share? Visit me on Twitter at @johndavidwarren.

John Warren is a writing coach and columnist for The Chautauquan Daily. You can reach him at johndavidwarren@aol.com or on Twitter via @johndavidwarren