Commentary Magazine


Bats, Men, and Morals:
Desert Reflections on the Unnatural Quality of Mercy

As part of the fruits of a year spent in the Arizona desert, Joseph Wood Krutch offers these moral reflections on mankind and society, gained by the ancient and honorable method, not altogether modish in our present age, of conning the Book of Nature. These passages will form part of his forthcoming book, The Desert Year.

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Before I settled in the Sonoran desert I spent a few days in the foothills of New Mexico’s Sacramento mountains. From a height we looked down on Alamagordo and, beyond that, across twenty or thirty miles of white gypsum sand to the forbidden spot where the first atom bomb was exploded.

There must be very few places in the United States so suitable for such an experiment; few, that is to say, either so remote or so devoid of anything to be destroyed. Several hundred square miles thereabout look very much as though they had all been worked over not so long ago by some very effective destructive agent, and after the bomb had gone off one might, with some justification, have inscribed over the spot the epitaph which seems a little overwrought for the situation in which Swinburne used it: “Like a god self-slain on his own strange altar Death lies dead.”

By now, I imagine, certain forms of life have crept back at least to the edge of the bomb pit itself. “Desert” is a relative term even when applied to so bleak a region as this, and there are few places on the globe totally empty of living things. On the bare rocks of high mountain peaks flourish the lichens which, even the more skeptical astronomers now admit, might grow in the atmosphere of the planet Mars. In Wyoming the stone basins of the scalding hot springs are bright with yellow algae. In the almost saturated brine of the Great Salt Lake a shrimp which cannot live unless thus dreadfully pickled passes his presumably happy life, and it is in the sandiest parts of the White Sands that the Yucca sends down its forty-foot root while pale sand-colored rodents dig about its base.

I dare say that there is a point, different for different people, beyond which the spareness of difficult countries ceases to be an encouraging example, and a point beyond which the dimmer forms of life awaken but little fellow feeling. Birds are among the least human, one might almost say the least understandable, of the conspicuous creatures of which men are commonly much aware, but there are many persons to whom their beauty and charm would seem a sufficient reason why the universe should exist and who can contemplate without horror a terrestrial globe of which they would be the only significant inhabitants. Not many, however, will follow Thoreau into his professed complacency at the thought that mud turtles would continue to exist even if man should destroy himself, and I doubt that even Thoreau would find emotionally satisfying a world in which nothing lived except lichen and brine shrimp.

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Alichen is an admirable organism. It is the first colonizer of bare rock and it can live where nothing else can. It has, if I may be so impudent as to put it this way, my great respect. Mars seems a trifle less bleak when I think that lichens may grow there. The thought of a dead universe is harder to bear than the thought of one in which green scales expand and grow a little before they die. But they would seem a rather small favor to be grateful for and I can hardly maintain that my respect is anything much warmer than just that.

What I like, for a time at least, about this particular spot where I have settled is the fact that it is just far enough—without being too far—from the point beyond which spareness would cease to be stimulating and the life of my fellow inhabitants too desperately precarious. On the one hand, it is a very proper environment for those, including myself, who like it. On the other, it is not crowded either with men or with any other form of life. And for those who dislike crowds of anything that is a strong point in its favor. The land simply will not support either too many people or too many mesquite trees; hence we both have room.

I cannot help seeing as an advantage the simple fact that the land here is dry enough to prevent uncomfortable crowding, and I cannot help wondering if one of the worst features of most of the world in which we live is not the simple fact that, to an ever increasing degree, mere living space is the thing which gives out first.

It is a commonplace that man’s ingenuity has made it possible for the earth to support many times more men than could possibly live there were it not for our advanced techniques of agriculture and of manufacturing. But is it really an encouraging rather than a terrifying fact that biochemists are already beginning to talk seriously of producing in yeast vats a protein food capable of supporting a population far larger than has ever seemed possible before? Where (and how) will the billions more who can possibly be fed, find places to live? Will vast tenements go up over the corn and wheat fields which are no longer necessary? Will ultimately every square foot of soil be not only owned but occupied? Will every other living thing be exterminated to make way for the one vast anthill of yeast-eating men? Even then, the limit would be reached at last. Would it not be better to reach it while we still have a little room to move about? I, at least, shall probably continue to think so unless some scientist can tell me not only how to produce more food but how to open up the fourth dimension for elbow room.

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Of the president of a certain agricultural college on his first trip to Europe, this story is told. He was leaning pensively over the ship’s rail when he was offered a penny for his thoughts. Waving his arm over the vastly deep which has touched the imagination more often and profoundly than anything else in nature except, perhaps, the starry heavens, he replied: “You know, I was just thinking what a pity it is that all this can’t be put down in alfalfa.” There are no doubt others who never see a bird without thinking of the pot, or a wood without leaping happily forward to the day when it will make newsprint, and who never observe any stretch of wild open country without wishing it were covered with skyscrapers or factories or bungalows. More souls for heaven? They will be, I think, ill prepared for it.

Is there really any virtue in mere numbers—even of men? The Biblical injunction “Increase and multiply” was given to a struggling tribe more in danger of extinction than of overcrowding and undoubtedly there is some optimum concentration below which the most effective cooperation and division of labor is not possible. It may even be true that metropolises, overpopulated for any other purpose, perform an indispensable function and I should hesitate to say that I, as an individual, would like to dispense with what I have learned in some of them. But in such places there is also much that is unlearned and much forgotten. When there has disappeared from the earth the last spot, even the last accessible spot, where something besides man and his immediate dependents hold sway, then man will have renounced utterly his ancient mother and will be arrogantly on his own. But for what will he have condemned himself to so impoverished an existence? For nothing except a more numerous breed.

It is hard to ask ourselves whether, and why, numbers should seem desirable, hard to dissociate our hope that we love mankind from the assumption that such love necessarily means a limitless desire for more and more specimens. But Thoreau was one of the few who actually did face the dilemma and who frankly stated his conclusions. Visiting New York at twenty-six he wrote: “Seeing so many people from day to day, one comes to have less respect for flesh and bones, and thinks they must be more loosely joined, of less firm fiber, than the few he had known. It must have a very bad influence on children to see so many human beings at once—mere herds of men.” Or, as he was later to say, “It is for want of a man that there are so many men.” And who that realizes how much the world’s respect for the individual has declined since Thoreau’s day can be sure that men do not seem less valuable just because there are so many more of them?

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A few mornings ago I rescued a bat from a swimming pool. The man who owned the pool—but did not own the but asked me why. That question I do not expect ever to be able to answer but it involves a good deal. If even I myself could understand my action I would know what it is that seems to distinguish man from the rest of nature and why, despite all she has to teach him, there is also something he would like to teach her if he could.

It is true that I like bats better than most people do. Though the fact that they fly without feathers is a heterodoxy held against them since early times, I find it easy to forgive. Moreover, and though I was exposed at an early age to Gustave Doré’s illustrations for the “Inferno,” I do not associate leathery wings with Satan. I know that their owners have no special predilection for female tresses and “like a bat out of hell” is not, for me, an especially expressive metaphor. Nature books always explain—for the benefit of utilitarians—that bats are economically important because they destroy many insects. For the benefit of those more interested in the marvelous than in the profitable they usually also say something about the bat’s wonderful invention of a kind of sono-radar by the aid of which he can fly in the blackest night without collision with even so artificial an obstruction as a piano wire strung across his path.

But none of these is the reason why I took the trouble to rescue one from drowning. Before lifting my particular bat out of the swimming pool, I did not calculate his economic importance and I did not rapidly review in my mind the question whether or not his scientific achievement entitled him to life.

Still less could I pretend that he was a rare specimen, or that one bat more or less would have any perceptible effect on the balance of nature. There were plenty of others just like him, both right here where I live and over the whole of this area. Almost every night I have seen several of his fellows swooping down to the swimming pool for a drink before starting off for an evening of economically useful activity. A few weeks before I had, as a matter of fact, seen near Carlsbad, New Mexico, several hundred thousand of this very species in a single flight That had seemed like enough bats to satisfy one for a normal lifetime. Yet here I was, not only fishing a single individual from the water, but tending him anxiously to see whether or not he could recover from an ordeal which had obviously been almost too much for him.

Probably he had fallen in because he had miscalculated in the course of the difficult maneuver involved in getting a drink on the wing. Probably, therefore, he had been in the water a good many hours and would not have lasted much longer. But he looked as though he wanted to live and I, inexplicably, also hoped that he would. And that would seem to imply some sort of kindliness more detached, more irrational, and more completely gratuitous than any nature herself is capable of. “So careful of the type she seems, so careless of the single life.”

At Carlsbad, so it seemed to me, I had seen bats in their thousands as nature sees them. Here by the swimming pool I had seen an individual bat as only man can see him. It was a neat coincidence which arranged the two experiences so close together and I shall always think of them in that way.

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At the cave I had, of course, plenty of company since the bats constitute one of the official sights of the National Park. Biologists from distant countries often come especially to see them, but to the ordinary tourist their flight is only a side show to be taken in after a day underground among the twenty-three miles of explored passages in a cave which is possibly the most extensive in the world. Like Old Faithful in the Yellowstone, the bat eruption is reliably predictable and so those unwilling to spend much time on nature can attend as at a scheduled performance.

About sunset the very miscellaneous crowd begins to gather, rather nervously uncertain over the question whether it is exhibiting a cultural interest or just being silly. Presently the park ranger assigned the job of speaking the prologue that evening climbs a boulder to make a little speech artfully compounded of information and simple, harmless jokes. Tonight, he says, the flight will not be a very large one—probably between two and three hundred thousand bats. Ten years ago there would have been at least two million, though, for once, man is not responsible for the declining animal population. The last decade has been unusually dry; that means fewer insects and, therefore, fewer bats. Perhaps a relatively wet part of the cycle is about due and the numbers may go up again. But even now there are more than most visitors will care to stay to see.

The bats, he continues, are of the kind called the Mexican Freetail because the tips of their tails project, as those of most bats do not, a little beyond the leathery membrane which stretches between the hind legs and helps the wings in flight. This bat is the smaller of the two, species common in the region and no one knows how long it has been living in the cave. At least it has been there long enough to lay down Vast quantities of guano and hundreds of tons of it were mined out a short generation ago before chemical fertilizers made the operation unprofitable. Indeed, it was the bats which led to the discovery, within this century, of the caves themselves. Some cowboys went to investigate what they thought was a cloud of smoke from a forest fire, discovered that it was a cloud of bats instead, and thus were led into the caverns which have not yet been explored to their end.

The ranger pauses and says that it probably won’t be long now. The crowd peers down into a black hole which descends very steeply into the ground. Presently someone, like an excited spectator at the race track, shouts “Here they come!” as a single bat rises out of the darkness. Less than a quarter of a second later this firstman-out is followed by another, and another, and another until the air is filled by a vast flying squadron. The bats rise spiraling in a counter-clockwise direction up to the rim of the pit and then disappear as a long stream headed southward. They will all, says the ranger, take’ a preliminary drink at a stream a mile or so away and then scatter for the night’s foraging, to return one by one after a number of hours which depends on how good the hunting is. By morning at least, each will have gone back to hang, head downward, from the cave wall, and since the young were left behind each mother must find her way back in the darkness to her particular place among the hundreds of thousands of her fellows.

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Every now and then there is a break of a second or two in the steady stream. Then bats begin to erupt again as though the cave mouth were some sort of biological volcano spewing Mexican Freetails in endless number. But no, on second thought, that metaphor will not do, for there is none of the undisciplined confusion of an inanimate explosion. In what order they come I do not know. Perhaps simply in the order of their nearness to the cave mouth. Neither, for that matter, do I know how, hanging in darkness, they know that outside the sun has gone down. But in any event this is not the pell-mell of a mob. In New York the crowds from the skyscrapers do not make their way out of their canyons or into the caves of their subway in any such orderly fashion. There is no pushing, no shoving, no collision. It is like the relentless, disciplined advance of some armada of the air which makes the boasted thousand-plane raids of the latest world war seem puny enough.

Presently the spectators begin to drift away in the order of their conscientiousness in “doing” the sights. Poor as the show is said to be by comparison with the good old days when the Carlsbad bats were really flourishing, it will go on for several hours. Being a medium good sightseer, I depart at about the time when half of my fellows have already left and as I walk away I cast my eye back over my shoulder to see that the bats are still coming. For as Dr. Johnson says, there is a horror in all last things and it may very well be that I shall never see them again.

It is only weeks later that I suddenly remember to ask myself, ‘Why counterclockwise?” Who decided that they should adopt that direction for their spiral, and when did he decide it? Here is a perfect example which Pascal should have known about when he was discussing the fact that it is sometimes less important what a convention is than simply that there should be one. Bat individualists—if, and I doubt it, there are any such things—sensibly confine their protestant behavior to matters significant in themselves and never undertake to demonstrate that there is more than one way of getting out of a cave. Or is, perhaps, their apparently sensible behavior really a score for the mechanist? In our part of the world the water that leaves our bathtub in a miniature whirlpool also spirals counter-clockwise because the direction of the earth’s rotation tips the otherwise neutral balance in that direction. I have read that in the Southern Hemisphere the normal direction of a vortex is the opposite. Are there bat caves in Africa or in South America, and if there are then do the bats, I wonder, come out of them clockwise? What would happen if an already conditioned Southern Hemisphere bat were transported to the North? On all these questions I had better, I suppose, consult some experts, though I imagine there aren’t many. Technically, of course, bats should belong to the mammalogists but because they are the only mammals which actually fly they don’t really fit in anywhere.

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Nature abhors a vacuum—in more senses than one. At Carlsbad she found a good place for bats and so she put a great many of them there. In fact, as the recent decline in number neatly illustrates, she filled the place right up to—and no doubt a little beyond—what the food supply could support. If this method of assuring herself that there will be as many as possible at every moment means that there will always be a few of the weaker who go to the wall, that is to her a matter of indifference. Even I find it difficult to love in my special manmade way as many bats as I saw at Carlsbad. Nature is content to love them in her way. She loves bats in general and as a species and for that reason she can never get enough of them. But as long as there are plenty in the world, she is unconcerned with any particular bat. She gives him his chance (or sometimes his lack of it) and if he does not, or cannot, take it, others will. A margin of failure is to be expected. The greatest good of the greatest number is a ruling principle so absolute that it is not even tempered with regret over those who happen not to be included within the greatest number.

Thus nature discovered, long before the sociologists did, the statistical criterion. Bureaucratic states which accept averages and curves of distribution as realities against which there is no appeal represent a sort of Return to Nature very different from what that phrase is ordinarily taken to imply. Insofar as the great dictators can be assumed to be in any sense sincere when they profess a concern with the welfare of their people or even with that of mankind, their concern is like nature’s—indifferent to everything except the statistically measurable result. If they really love men, then they love them only as nature loves bats. She never devised anything so prompt and effective as the gas chamber, but her methods are sometimes almost equally unscrupulous. She has her methods—not always pretty ones—of getting rid of the superfluous. She seems to agree, in principle, with those who maintain that any decisive concern with a mere, individual is unscientific, sentimental, and ultimately incompatible with the greatest good of the greatest number.

But one bat in a swimming pool is not the same thing as two or three hundred thousand at Carlsbad. Because there is only one of him and only one of me, some sort of relationship, impossible in the presence of myriads, springs up between us. I become a man again, aware of feelings which are commonly called humane but for which I prefer the stronger word human.

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It was the barking of two young police dogs taking a natural, unsentimental attitude toward an individual in distress which first called my attention to what I still think of as “my” bat though I am sure nothing in nature prepared him to believe that I would assume any responsibility for his welfare. At first I did not know what he was because a fish out of water looks no less inexplicable than a bat in it. The enormous wings attached to his tiny mouse’s body had helped, no doubt, to keep him afloat but they were preposterously unmanageable in a dense, resistant medium. The little hooks on his arms by means of which he climbs clumsily on a rough surface were useless at the vertical, tiled sides of the pool. When I lifted him out with a flat wire net he lay inertly sprawled, his strange body so disorganized as to have lost all functional significance, like a wrecked airplane on a mountainside which does not look as though it had ever been able to take to the air.

A slight shiver which shook his body when I leaned over him was the only sign of life and the situation did not look promising for I knew that a live bat is very much alive, with a heart which sometimes beats more than seven times as fast as mine. Since he obviously needed—if he was not too far gone to need anything—to be dry and to be warm, I spread him on top of a wall in the full sun to which he had never, perhaps, been exposed before. Every now and then the tremor recurred and as his fur dried I began to be aware of a heart beating furiously. Possibly, I began to say, he may survive; and as I bent closer, he raised his head and hissed in my face exposing his gleaming set of little white teeth before he collapsed exhausted again.

By now his leathery wings were dry and his fur hardly more than damp. But he still seemed incapable of any except the feeblest movements. I thought, it will be hours before he will be able to fly. I put something beside him to cast a semi-shadow and I was turning away when I caught sight of a movement out of the comer of my eye. Then I looked, just in time to see him raise himself suddenly onto his bony elbows and take off. He half circled the pool to get his bearings and, flying strongly now, he disappeared from my sight over the desert, not permanently the worse, I hope, for a near escape from the death which would not have been very important so far as the total welfare of the bat community is concerned. Inevitably I have wondered whether he has ever been, by chance, one of the several of his kind I have since seen drinking at evening. Or has he, perhaps, found some body of water with less unpleasant associations?

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But why had I ever done more than, like the dogs, peer at him with curiosity? Why had I felt sad when I thought he would never recover, really joyful when I saw him fly away? If he had drowned, there would have been others left to catch insects as well as to demonstrate for the benefit of science the bats’ proto-radar. Who am I that I should exhibit a concern which, apparently, the Great Mother of bats and men does not share? What did I accomplish for bats, for myself, or for humanity at large when I fished my bat from the water?

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These are not rhetorical questions. They probably have several answers but there is one of which I am especially aware. What I had done was to help keep alive an attitude, an emotion, or better yet a strong passion, of which only the faint beginnings are observable in any creature except man and which, moreover, appear in danger of extinction by two powerful enemies. This sort of concern with a mere individual is scorned alike by the frank aposdes of violent unreason and by those proponents of the greatest good for the greatest number who insist upon being what they call scientific rather than what they call sentimental.

Very often I have wondered over the fact that love for humanity seems so often incompatible with love for individual men and women. It seems almost as though most people had to choose one or the other, and it is a fact often observed that those who believe themselves great humanitarians are frequently ruthless with acquaintances and with dependents alike. They, however, can at least give the specious explanation that concern with the mere individual must not be allowed to confuse the main issue. But what of the less explicable fact that the kindest and most considerate people seem often little concerned with government and politics? Swift boasted his contempt for humanity and his love for John, Tom, and Harry. Anatole France offered the explanation that to love humanity meant to idealize it and therefore to hate most men for not realizing the ideal. But I have sometimes wondered if the paradox were not rooted in something even more fundamental.

It was nature which loved the race and it was man who added to that a love for the individual as such. Perhaps those two things, though not really incompatible under all circumstances, become so when one accepts also nature’s insatiable appetite for more and more of every kind of creature, at no matter what costs either to other species or to the individuals of any one kind. Perhaps we have retained too much of her immoderate desire for multiplication while developing our own concern for the individual whom we think of as rare or irreplaceable. In any event one thing is certain. However many of us there may be or come to be, no man and no group of men should have too much power over too many of us. It makes such a man or such a group feel too much as though they were nature herself. So careful of the type they are—or claim to be. So careless of the single life they so indubitably become.

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