Sammy Weaver wins The Moth Nature Writing Prize for bat detecting diary
Winner ‘conjures up the otherness of the natural world’, says judge Richard Mabey
A pipistrelle bat
Sammy Weaver’s Echolocate: A Bat Noctuary has won the inaugural Moth Nature Writing Prize.
Richard Mabey, a pioneering voice in modern nature writing, judged the prize and said of the winner: “This is a finely observed piece about bat behaviour, set lightly but tellingly against a backcloth of social crisis and personal resettlement.
“I was especially impressed by the writer’s pushing of language to its limits to try and capture a world where movement is complex geometry and seeing is hearing. It conjures up the otherness of the natural world, but also that we inhabit the same spaces, so the hard task of understanding is imperative.”
Weaver has just completed an MA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and is currently collaborating with a composer to explore the theme of re-emergence. She also recently won the Leeds Peace Poetry Competition 2020, judged by Zaffar Kunial.
“During my upbringing on a smallholding on the Welsh borders, I spent many years exploring woods and rivers, largely on my own, and content with being in the company of others,” Weaver said. “By others, I mean the more-than-human lives of animals, plants, fungi, stones, etc. Later, during my anthropology degree, I learnt about animistic societies that honour the entanglement of humans with nature, as opposed to the bounded individualism resulting from the Western human/nature divide.
“I first encountered the magic of a bat detector whilst on a writing course led by Pascale Petit and David Morley at Ty Newydd in north Wales. After moving onto a narrowboat last year, I soon discovered that canals are great feasting ‘grounds’ for hungry bats. I spent many evenings during lockdown listening to the bat detector, trying to translate into words the strange sounds of their echolocation.
Inspired by Sean Borodale’s site-specific poems, I wrote a lot of Echolocate: A Bat Noctuary in the moment of listening. I was surprised by the jumble of biography, lyric and prose that resulted. This form of diary-style nature writing is a new venture for me, so I was amazed to receive a phone call from Rebecca O’Connor saying I had won! It gives me so much confidence and it is wonderful to have my writing out there and enjoyed by others. Who knows, maybe it’ll even inspire some bat detecting.”
Mabey also commended Sicelo Mbatha’s Letting Go, “for its brave account of a natural disaster, and of achieving reconciliation with the predatoriness of life”; Alyson Hallett’s The Jellyfish, the Fig and the Cowslip, “for its sense of the weirdness of creation, and the improbable connectivities between its disparate elements”; and Meredith Jalbert’s Arias from the Last Act. “There is,” Mabey said, “wisdom and perceptive writing here in abundance.”
Weaver’s Echolocate appears in the winter issue of The Moth and she will receive €1,000 and a week at The Moth Retreat in rural Cavan.
Echolocate: A Bat Noctuary
By Sammy Weaver
Calderdale, West Yorkshire
First bats I have seen this year.
The last bats I remember seeing were in October, 150 miles southwest of here on the mountain road up to Hay Bluff on the Welsh borders. Returning from a day of walking, I noticed the bats swinging out of the hedgerow as I followed two sheep down the lane. It was a day of puffballs – wrinkled sacks with ragged maws that coughed brown spores when I kicked them. They always make me think of an old man who has lived his life in a dank smoking room. It was a day of tumbling down the mountainside through the ferns, only to pause under the thicket’s makeshift roof, to see the tempting red of a fly agaric – its scarlet cap almost gelatinous and stippled with white scales.
Since then, I have moved my life onto a narrowboat and moved up north. In my human centrism, I had begun to nurse – and mourn – the idea that bats just didn’t exist in this valley, forgetting they were all tucked inside their hibernation roosts in whatever nook or crevice in tree, bridge, building or cave.
These first bats are swooping around the church as if on invisible wires, tethered to the steeple and their twilight liturgy. A thread of warmth must have stirred them from their torpor for their first hunt of the year. Their bodies tuning back into the thrum of fly-wing, the clattering of moths on their way to the moon. Their skin must be tighter around their bones now after months without a good feed. Imagine your wings, your body, your mind unfolding from a winter of slowed-down heartbeat, a winter of clinging to the edge, only to fly out into the vast sky again.
Through the side hatch of the boat, I watch the bats flying out from the bank into the middle of the canal. Their flight is somersault. Through the detector, their echolocation sounds like they are zipping and unzipping the sky. The air is smack-lip. A sound trapped and spinning in the caves and caverns and vaults of air. A carburettor? Stuttering into the ground. Now a stampede of little feet turning into hooves. Now a ratchet winding through its teeth. Twittering drip-music far off collides into my face like a helicopter.
The detector is an apparatus of translation, of metamorphosis. From bat tongue to detector to coiled snail of cochlea, where tiny hairs beat to make a nerve send electric impulses to the brain. There is nothing self-contained about hearing. No isolation in the act of listening.
News of Junior passing in a hospital in Bristol.
A flit of wing like a wish – here, then gone.
What is a virus but an intimacy with nature? Intimacy with the intent of survival from both sides? We, virus and their human-animals, are struggling to survive, no matter how successful we may seem.
They skitter in with twilight; never one without the other as if they are kith and kin. ‘Kith’ from the Old English c?thth whose meaning was ‘knowledge of a native land’. Is ‘kin’ related to ‘ken’- from the Old English cennan, ‘to tell, to make known’? Bats know the landscape, or skyscape, of twilight well. Twilight allows for certain moves that in the daytime would mean risk of predation. Twilight is a reliable collaborator, turning up night upon night in the great cycle of things. Twilight is a black gauze pushing up against the blue of day until it takes over and fuzzes to dark. The trees drag tatters of shadow along the bank. I noticed the trees today blushing green as if the ghost of new life possessed them again.
Tonight, through the detector a million drips speeded up in their dripping and slapping the rocks below. The map they are stitching is three-dimensional. Or is it four? Or five? Ping-pong balls flung back and forth between many invisible players. This is the sound of something almost actual turning upon itself only to disappear. Like those mutable elements - fire and water - their existence is on the move. Keep moving.
Half-eight. Too early for bats.
A sliding mirror slips and tonight meteorites. Venus-still, the canal tolls with silver. Then, a few knocks on the canvas as if something beyond representation is puncturing through.
Quiet. Cold wind, clear skies, the glowing pewter nib of Venus. One bat looping out of the eaves of the Unitarian Church. More birdsong than bats. A robin jumping from road to bough. Some small creature rustling in the undergrowth. The world is one big night garden of scent.
I remember my childhood punctuated by bats. I used to be able to hear the squeaking of them as if they were sliding on a disc just beyond the top of my hearing. Possible? Is difference – between species, between things, between individuals – to do with what we filter out and what we take in? The world is noisy even when it is silent.
My mum always told the same story of millions of bats roosting in the old vicarage in the small village we lived in. Perfect gothic image. No one knew where they all hid. Now, I read that bat specialists still don’t know where all the bats go in the winter, as if we could track their movements so deftly. We are so slow, lumbering behind them with detectors and notebooks. A family lived in the vicarage and I still try to fathom how they lived side by side. The family coming and going on the ground with all their dramas, while the bats hung there suspended above their lives. A few hundred yards from the vicarage, my dad lies under the ground. He has been there for nineteen years. His body long on its way back to soil. The yew tree keeping watch, I think of all the deaths it has held in its growth, all the new life.
Then I think of last year in Galicia, my partner’s father’s homeland, where the derelict farms and outbuildings are full of bats. As young people continue to move to the cities and towns, the bats are the new residents in these deserted smallholdings. In Galician, or galego, bat is morcego - similar to the Spanish murciélago, and linked to the Latin mur caecus, meaning ‘blind mouse’. We found one blind mouse dead in the old schoolhouse, like a black leather purse on the floorboard. Contracted to a smaller self like a bog body and the flight long flown out of it.
For a bat to be blind, sight must be solely the dominion of the eyes. Is it blind to pinpoint a midge mid-air? They see by echo and hearing. When I hear the translation of their sonar on the detector, I see shapes.
tiny violin of twilight
all nerve and will
plucking the invisible
so it rings along the valley
One night the air gathered between my fingers and fleshed into the formation of cells and receptors so now my webbing is flight. I use the gap to potentialise the catch. Trees potentialise the gap with their leaves - webbed green wings that trap the light. Think with the cacophony of echo (I bracket off the noise) from the midge, turning upside out to hunt it. Portioning the sky into hunter, hunted. Tonight, no song but percussion, a cauldron of drummers moving from room to room mid-air, into corners and corridors, compressing now into a concertina.
Pipistrelle bat on the track up to Gaddings Dam, wheeling out from the copse around the Quaker burial ground. Does it note the human fumbling down there, all cumbersome in her flesh and barrel head, mumbling something so bass that it could be the shakings of the earth? Both human and bat use the track as a path to proceed. Bat turns back over and over as if the same path is never done.