It’s only natural

Bat-filled Manitoba farmhouse brings writer closer to naturalist great-grandfather


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Excerpt from Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests, Winnipeg writer Ariel Gordon’s latest book, which was published in May.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/08/2019 (1402 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Excerpt from Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests, Winnipeg writer Ariel Gordon’s latest book, which was published in May.

Black Bat Night

They move quicker than I can bat an eye. I wish I could see them.

Supplied An illustration of a pipistrelle bat from the book about Ariel Gordon’s great-grandfather Gerald Barrett-Hamilton, For the Love of Nature : Mammals Described and Illustrated by the Naturalists Gerald E.H. Barrett-Hamilton and Edward Adrian Wilson by Martin J. Hollenberg, 2008.

Specifically, I wish the bats — one of the six species of Chiroptera in Manitoba — flying on the other side of the bedroom window would slow down so that my only mental images of them weren’t of a leathery wing spread between a biologist’s rough pink fingertips and a graceful blur. Laura Lamont, who brokered my stay at her mother’s hundred-year-old farmhouse in the town of Olha, Manitoba, near Riding Mountain National Park, had mentioned in passing that there were bats in the walls.

It’s June 2014 and, after the hubbub of six years with child, I’ve the next fourteen days completely to myself. I’m here to write. Given that I identify mostly as a nature writer, I’m pleased to have found myself in rural Manitoba, with its intersection of nature and nurture, meadow and pasture and falling-down farmhouses, to do it.

● ● ●

Laura had told me there were bats in the walls, but she didn’t mention the rumbling and purring sounds the colony would make all day long.

That first morning, I could hear their furry hum when I went to hang my towels to dry on the back deck, and then decided to bring a book and a cup of tea out into the sun. The sound seemed so close that I moved to different vantage points where I could see the roof, convinced that there was a snoring raccoon up there. But there was nothing except this large rumbling, like an idling motor waiting to be revved.

After long minutes of looking, I finally saw an ear sticking out of a knothole the size of a loonie high up on the cabin wall. A small, pointy, browny-black ear with a furry expanse of back, almost the same colour as the weathered wood that sheathed the cabin.

When I got back inside, the sound was there, too.

Ariel Gordon’s book Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests, published by Wolsak & Wynn, May 2019.

That evening, I lay in bed and watched a movie on my laptop. For whatever reason, I chose not to close the curtain on the window directly opposite the bed. Then it was dusk and there was suddenly all this movement out the window, which was somehow different from the movement of birds in daytime sunlight. I paused the movie and moved to the edge of the bed to watch the bats.

They swooped outside the window, small and quick.

Eventually, my curiosity was overcome by my tiredness, by the sameness of their movement out in the falling dark. I restarted my movie, and after that I went to bed.

● ● ●

It’s afternoon. I’ve got a cup of tea and an uncooperative poem on my desk. Maybe I should read instead. I remember that I brought a book that collects some of the writing of my paternal great-grandfather, G.E.H. Barrett-Hamilton, an Irish naturalist. Barrett-Hamilton — Gerry to his friends — was born in India and educated at Cambridge. He was most noted for his A History of British Mammals, which was divided between flying mammals, land mammals and aquatic mammals, and published serially between 1910 and 1921.

In the fall of 1913, when Gerry was in his forties — the age I am now — and the father of six children, the British Colonial Office and the British Museum of Natural History sent him to the Antarctic to study whaling and sealing. He died on the shores of South Georgia soon after his arrival in 1914, of a heart attack or pneumonia or a heart attack brought on by pneumonia — the record isn’t entirely clear.

What we do know is that his body was shipped back from Antarctica on the whaler S.S. Orwell, and that his wife Maude, my great-grandmother, went to meet the boat:

Supplied An illustration of Ariel Gordon’s great-grandfather Gerald Barrett-Hamilton in the book about him and his work, For the Love of Nature: Mammals Described and Illustrated by the Naturalists Gerald E.H. Barrett-Hamilton and Edward Adrian Wilson, by Martin J. Hollenberg, 2008.

“On Sunday I went to Waterloo & on to the Liverpool steamer where his coffin lay & it gave me a great feeling of comfort to be so near him again — Then on Monday morning a little river steamer brought down the coffin to a little village a mile from the church where a very large number of his friends mostly the labouring class met it as it came to the church where his Mother, Sister & myself were waiting. Then was a very bright choral service & then his coffin was lowered into a grave that looked like a nest or a home all lined with moss, ivy, ferns & violets…”

It was his death, along with the loss of the income he brought in, that eventually brought my granny and her siblings and mother to Canada. That eventually brought me to this farmhouse, with its purple vetches and ragged swallowtail butterflies in the ditches, its mushrooms and swollen rainwater ponds in the fields.

I unearth the book and start leafing through its pages, past the reproductions of his Antarctic journal to the excerpts from A History of British Mammals. To individual entries like “The Common Dormouse” and “The Pygmy Shrew.” Then there’s the section on bats, published in 1910:

“Bats are very thirsty creatures and love to lick up water or milk,” my great-grandfather wrote. “In nature they often drink, like swallows, on the wing, and, although there is no reason to suppose that, like the birds, they seek to wash themselves in the water, they have been occasionally detected alighting on its surface, and on such occasions have surprised the observer by the agility with which they rowed themselves along with flapping wings, or at will resumed their flight.”

The next few paragraphs focus on bat hibernation, comparing species native to warmer climates like Italy to those in Ireland and England. And then there’s this:

“North American naturalists have proved that bats perform regular migrations, but it is not clear that they do so to avoid hibernation. Of six species found in Manitoba, Canada, according to Mr. Ernest Thompson Seton, ‘all are migratory and yet hibernate,’ and the seasonal journeys of at least three of them, the Red, the Hoary, and the Silver-haired, are on a scale comparable with those of birds. The second of these has even been known to cross from the American continent to the Bermudas, a distance of over six hundred miles.”

I agree that six-hundred-mile flights are impressive. I drove a third of that to get from Winnipeg to Olha, and it was most of a day’s drive. But what’s remarkable to me is that my great-grandfather has been dead for a hundred years, my grandmother — his daughter — who spent most of her life in Manitoba, has been dead for fifteen, but, somehow, Gerry’s now moved into the farmhouse with me and the bats.

Ariel Gordon Canadian tiger swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) butterflies feed on purple vetches in the Manitoba town of Olha.

● ● ●

I’ve started spying on barn swallows. I’m not sure if it’s because they were mentioned in Gerry’s snippet on the behavior of bats or because they’re just around, this being an old farmhouse surrounded by old outbuildings and old trees, but I find myself creeping into my bedroom several times a day to twitch the orange drapes…

I think the bats in the walls are probably little brown bats; they’re the right size and are roosting in the right kind of place. It seems like a healthy colony, but it is worth noting that the Province of Manitoba recently designated the little brown bat and its relative, the northern long-eared bat, as endangered species. This is mostly to prepare for the arrival in Manitoba of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has devastated bat populations in Eastern Canada and elsewhere. White-nose syndrome is already well established in Thunder Bay, and biologists say it’s only a matter of time before it arrives here. As with the emerald ash borer, which has decimated ash trees across eastern North America and will likely make its way to Manitoba soon, all we can do is hope our preparations will be enough.

In the meantime, the bats are nursing another generation of pups in the walls. Which makes this a nursery roost. My daughter was born during a June heat wave six years ago. She refused to drink from a bottle, so I spent the first five and a half months of her life with her no farther away from me than the tips of my fingers — so let’s just say I’m familiar with the closeness of a nursery.

● ● ●

The next morning, walking along the highway, I’m thinking on the differences between myself and Gerry.

I have a Bachelor of Science in Biology as well as a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Journalism. My mother was a scientist. While I didn’t want to spend my life in a laboratory, much of my childhood was spent listening to her complain about the lack of understanding of even the most basic scientific principles, so I thought I’d be a science journalist. I eventually came to understand that full-time journalism, even science journalism, meant no poetry or prose writing in the off-hours. So I gave it up.

Ariel Gordon Castilleja miniata flowers in the Manitoba town of Olha.

Naturalist, back in my great-grandfather’s day and earlier, was sometimes code for gentlemen scholars, men with money who occupied themselves with molluscs or fossils or birds, collecting specimens themselves or, as in Joan Thomas’s Curiosity — which I’ve reread while at the farmhouse — paying others to collect for them. Still, they were generalists, studying whatever caught their fancy and, most often, what was in the vicinity. My great-grandfather studied mammals of every stripe — mostly small mammals like voles, mice and bats — collecting and corresponding with other naturalists. But he also applied his powers of observation to aquatic mammals like northern fur seals and, eventually, whales.

Over the years, my focus on the natural world has narrowed to trees and the mushrooms in their vicinity, but given the opportunity, I’ll write about almost anything in my environment. When I’ve had the chance to ask a biologist or park interpreter about resources on a particular organism or phenomena, she will often ask, “What are you looking for?” My answer is usually, “I don’t know yet.” She then looks at me funny, but it’s true: I don’t know what will be of use to the thing I’m writing — or planning to write — until I’ve assimilated the information, until I’ve combined that information with my impressions of my experiences. I need to see what sparks. And what doesn’t.

I wonder — how did Gerry approach his writing, when did he feel he had enough material to put pen to paper, when did he think he had enough data for a workable theory? I wonder, too, how Gerry approached parenting. After his marriage in 1903, he no longer signed onto months-long expeditions, which had been his practice as a bachelor. The next ten years were spent farming, raising his six children and writing, both for A History of British Mammals and articles for journals. The trip to Antarctica was the first major trip he’d taken in a decade. I understand the mixture of elation and fear he must have felt as he packed his trunk, as he boarded the ship for England. I’m right there with him.

My granny, the youngest of Gerry’s six children, was only three when he left for Antarctica and four when his body arrived by river steamer to County Wexford. She likely didn’t even remember what it was like to be held by him.

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