Link roundup: Unbalanced exchanges, extroverted tyrants, and biology’s dark matter

Poetry Daily: “Engagement,” by Adam Sol
I admire how the title and the last line take this political poem to a higher plane.

The explosion will exceed the necessity of the occasion.
The exchange of fire will be unbalanced.
The response will be disproportionate.
The reporter is factually incorrect, theoretically misinformed, morally reprehensible. “Where have all the bats gone?”
An update on white-nose syndrome in Pennsylvania (and throughout the east). It seems that while colony-living bats in North America are all going to become endangered if not extinct, the more solitary bats will probably be fine.

The Christian Science Monitor: “Reports: Lax oversight, ‘greed’ preceded Japan nuclear crisis”
No real surprise here, but sad nonetheless.

I am: A Twitter Poem by Pär Thörn
Not a set text, but a constantly updating scroll of new Twitter posts beginning with the words “I am” — rather mesmerizing to watch. Here’s a sample I just collected before it disappeared back into the ether:

i am truly blessed
I am nothing to be played with
I am excited to start.
I am so glad he will get voted
i am on i post something den dipset
I am crazy.

NewScientist: “Biology’s ‘dark matter’ hints at fourth domain of life”

The facts are that there is lots of genetic diversity, and unquestionably most of it is unknown to us. It’s legitimate to consider that there’s genuinely new stuff out there.

The Australian: “Japan syndrome shows why we need WikiLeaks”

Unfortunately, all this information, including the original cables, was released only this week, through The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian newspapers in Britain. If publicised earlier it might have increased public pressure on the Japanese government to do more to ensure the safety of reactors.

But without WikiLeaks most of it probably never would have seen the light of day. One of the justifications governments use for not releasing information is to avoid “unnecessary” fears.

Allen B. Downey: “The Tyranny of the Extroverts”
An old essay that an contact just linked to on his microblog. (Side note for all you Twitter fanboys and girls: This is what you can do on a federated microblogging system, subscribe to someone on one service while using another service. Pretty nifty, eh?) It links to another, similar piece from the Atlantic, but this one’s more quotable, e.g.:

If “interpersonal skills” really means skills, then I can’t object, but I’m afraid that in the wrong hands it means something more like “interpersonal style”, and in particular it means the style of extroverts. I have the same concern about “communication skills.” People have different styles; if my style isn’t the same as yours, does that mean I lack skills?

As for teamwork, well, I’m sure there are some problems that are best solved with collaborative, active learning, but I am equally sure that there are problems you can’t solve with your mouth open. “Japan Proves Truly ‘A Friend Indeed’ After Hurricane Katrina
Now it’s our turn.

Poetry Daily: Two Poems by Elaine Equi
There is a right way to write didactic poems, and Equi shows how.

Work to abolish
the most abject poverty of all—

that of knowing
only one world.

Portico bat

I guess I must be what they call batshit crazy, because when I saw bat shit on the bricks outside my door, I let out a whoop. The portico bat is back! I got a flashlight and pointed it up into the crack between the roof structure and the side of the house, and sure enough, there he was, blinking down at me from behind a mud dauber’s nest.

portico bat (little brown myotis)
Click through for the close-up (I differentially adjusted the light levels in the crack and wall portions of the photo, which accounts for the slightly artificial look)

Bats are long-lived creatures — in stark contrast to most mammals their size — so in one sense it’s not surprising that this little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) has been coming back to roost every spring for at least the past six years, which is as long as I’ve been keeping track. But with the epidemic known as white-nose syndrome now beginning to decimate populations of bats in nearby hibernacula, I didn’t expect to see this guy again. I decided to annoy him for a couple more minutes, just long enough to snap his picture for posterity.

No white nose yet — though last summer, he was briefly white from head to toe. The house was getting a long-overdue paint job, and it was seriously disturbing his sleep. When I scraped under the portico roof, I was careful not to get too close, but when I started blasting the adjacent wall with the pressure-washer, he came sailing out like a bat out of hell — a really, really wet hell.

So when it came time to paint, I guess the smell got to him and he decided to flee again, only this time, for some reason, he dove straight into the bucket of paint. Our caretaker Paula was the painter, and she let out a yell that brought me running. Good thing she’s not as slow-witted as I am, though. She grabbed him before he could fly away or start grooming himself, carried him into my laundry room, and very gently washed the paint from his fur and parchment-thin wings in a trickle of tap water while her husband Troy and I watched and offered advice.

You have never seen a more ugly and pitiable creature than that soaking wet bat. Fortunately, it was a warm day. I scrounged up a cardboard box to put him in until the paint dried in a couple of hours — we were afraid he’d try to crawl back into his crack and get wet paint on himself again. Toward evening when we finally released him, though, he flew off into the woods, and he didn’t return for several days. But return he did, and there wasn’t a trace of paint on him. He’s a survivor.

view of the portico showing the bat's location
view of the portico showing the bat's location

I wonder if he ever misses the teeming maternal colony of his first summer. Perhaps, like humans, bats don’t remember their infancy. Some might say they don’t remember much at all, lacking (as far as we know) a symbolic language, but he certainly remembers his spot behind the portico each year. And bats and humans might be expected to have a little bit in common, since we’re both long-lived social animals — except when we’re not, and go off and live as a recluse for a while. Even though I rarely see him, I enjoy knowing he’s there, ten feet from where I write. If he doesn’t return next spring, it’ll be just a little bit lonelier around here.

White-nose syndrome

White-nose Syndrome from Gerrit Vyn on Vimeo.

A biologist friend sent me the link to this slide presentation on white-nose syndrome last night, but it took me until this afternoon to muster the strength to watch it. I think the fact that it’s still images — and very fine photos at that — actually makes it harder-hitting than if it were a true video. While I’ve never agreed with the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, pictures plus spoken words make for a very potent combination. It’s not the information per se, most of which I’d already known, but had been managing to keep on a somewhat abstract level.

Bats play a pivotal role in eastern forest ecosystems because they consume a very large quantity of insects. What effect will their disappearance have on forest trees — or on crops, for that matter? But more than that, it’s terrible to be losing these creatures which are wondrous and beautiful and important for their own sake. I hate to always talk about extirpation or extinction in terms of the effects on us and other species, as if that’s the main reason why it matters, though it’s an ecological truism that, as John Muir put it, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” And bats on summer evenings are woven inextricably into some of my fondest memories of childhood.

There’s no obvious, conclusive lesson here, not yet, though I’ve heard suggestions that the white nose fungus might be native to Europe, and might have been brought here accidentally by cavers. There doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it, though obviously biologists are rushing to learn all they can in hopes of preventing its spread, or at least helping to save remnant populations of the affected species. Congress recently approved $1.9 million to study white-nose syndrome, and you can keep up with other developments in this story at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website. There’s a form there that you can use to report unusual bat behavior or deaths if you live in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Hampshire or Vermont. You could also join Bat Conservation International, the world’s leading scientific advocacy organization for bats.

I am keeping my fingers crossed that the epidemic won’t effect some of the more solitary, forest-dwelling species, and will be limited to those who spend the winter in large hibernacula, but that’s probably wishful thinking. I’m not really sure why I’m sharing all this. You’re either going to shrug, if you’re not much of a nature lover, or, like me, become uselessly distraught. I don’t have the words to express how this makes me feel. After watching the above presentation, I proceeded to burn dinner — something I haven’t done in years, if ever — and break a favorite casserole lid. “This is not my day,” I said by way of lame explanation. But for the bats, this is evidently not their century.


Image hosting by Photobucket

Ice can do in one winter what it takes dissolved limestone centuries to achieve. Entering the mouth of the cave, we step gingerly between the brittle teeth.

Image hosting by Photobucket

It’s like a strip show. Look but don’t touch, says the guide; this is a living cave. The formations are so sensitive, one touch of oily skin is enough to halt their slow dance of minerals forever.

Image hosting by Photobucket

The walls have ears. Approximately 8,000 of them.

Image hosting by Photobucket

Some of the bats wear a coat of condensed water droplets while they sleep. They glitter in the flashlight’s beam like pale geodes.

Image hosting by Photobucket

Inverted as they are, we recognize many of these landscapes – or think we do. These are the long-legged peaks and the dark forests we know from childhood, from dreams, from Russian ikon paintings.

Image hosting by Photobucket

With all lights extinguished, we take the measure of the place one drip at a time. How many generations would we have to live underground before we learned to echolocate as well as the bats?

Image hosting by Photobucket

The stream that formed this cave was diverted elsewhere so tourists could flow through. At times, we feel like voyagers through our own viscera, inspecting the entrails of a future cut short by the very process of inspection.

Image hosting by Photobucket

The usual flotsam of outlaws and Indians are said to have left buried treasures and unmarked graves. But these are no ruins. The columns are still barely half-built.

Myotis lucifugus

The portico light had been left on, and after a while I noticed that bats had begun swooping in to catch the insects that swarmed around it. Eva and I went to the door to watch. Just as we got there, a bat flew in above us and didn’t go back out. I opened the door and looked up. He had climbed into the crack between the end of the roof and the side of the house, and had begun grooming himself. With the aid of a flashlight, this turned into quite an engrossing spectacle.

The bat – a little brown myotis, presumably a solitary male – kept his face turned mostly away from us, so that what we saw most often looked like a big-eared mouse chewing on a tiny umbrella. Only when he worked on the surface of an open wing did we get a look at his face, dimly visible through the thin membrane of skin.

The contrast between the smooth wing and the deeply wrinkled, pushed-in face seemed to suggest some elemental truth about the night, and about the sort of consciousness one must evolve to fully inhabit it. I mean, one can easily follow custom and read into a bat’s face the stamp of evil, or an eldritch wisdom. But nothing of that sort came to mind; only now, in retrospect, do judgements like these suggest themselves. We felt, I think, only a simple awe.

We watched so long, Eva started to complain of neck cramps, and both my arms got tired from holding the flashlight in turn. He spent most of his time on the wings, with only a few nibbles at his abdomen. Is this something that bats have to do every few hours to remain flight-worthy? Bat Conservation International’s website says only that

In addition to day roosts in tree cavities and crevices, little brown myotis seem quite dependent upon roosts which provide safe havens from predators that are close to foraging grounds.

So possibly the screech owl that we heard calling intermittently had been too close for comfort.

When the bat finished grooming, he turned his listening face full on me for a few seconds, then, rather than flying out the way he came, scuttled up feet first through a crack in the tiles and disappeared. It was only then that I thought to wonder if the flashlight had hurt his eyes.