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Desert Dispatch Vol. 13

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Cattle Crossing by Carlos Morales. Each week, we'll feature a different image from a listener or staff member. Send your snapshots to photos@marfapublicradio.org.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Carlsbad Caverns by Alaina Walton. Each week, we'll feature a different image from a listener or staff member. Send your snapshots to photos@marfapublicradio.org

In the summer of 1959, writers Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath took a road trip across America. They stopped in New Mexico at the Carlsbad Caverns to see the bat emergence– a nightly summer ritual in which hundreds of thousands of bats fly out of the caverns at once. They disappear over the horizon to eat their weight in moths, then return to the cave before dawn to do it all over again the next night.

Hughes, taken by the experience, wrote a poem called “Karlsbad Caverns.” It begins with reverence:

We had seen the bats in Karlsbad caves,
Thick as shaggy soot in chimneys
Bigger than cathedrals. We'd made ourselves dots
On the horizon of their complete world
And their exclusive lives.

Recently, I was one of a hundred or so visitors gathered at the Caverns at dusk, waiting to witness those exclusive lives.

Carolyn Kormann walking to the Bat Flight Amphitheater
Zoe Kurland
Carolyn Kormann walking to the Bat Flight Amphitheater

I headed to the Carlsbad Caverns from Marfa in the late afternoon and met Carolyn Kormann in the parking lot, just before sunset. Carolyn is a writer, and she’s spent the last year in Marfa working on a book about bats. This would be Carolyn’s “last hurrah” – her final reporting trip in a string of visits she’s made to see bat flights all over the world.

The amphitheater at the Caverns has an air of formality; it’s sturdy and colosseum-like, fit with rows of stone benches curved towards the mouth of a large cave stubbled with prickly pear cacti. Though the theater was built in 1954, people have been coming to see the emergence since the 1920s, sprawling in the dirt as night fell. That's nearly a century of people sitting in silence, watching bats take flight.

Carolyn came properly prepared with binoculars and a notepad. I, on the other hand, arrived carrying 20 pounds of what I soon learned was contraband electronic equipment: my recorder, a microphone, and a camera, all of which would disturb the bats we were about to see. Photos, videos and recordings are forbidden during the emergence, so I put the equipment aside and went analog.

The Bat Flight Amphitheater at the Carlsbad Caverns
Zoe Kurland
The Bat Flight Amphitheater at the Carlsbad Caverns

As we took our seats, swallows flitted around the cave, swooping out of view.

“This is what they call ‘the changing of the guard’” Carolyn said. The birds clear out and make way for the bats– 400,000 Brazilian Free-tails, all huddled in the cave waiting for dusk.

Carolyn has always loved bats. “In the Northeast, they’re a signal of my favorite time: long summer nights, like those long dusks in June and July.” Carolyn grew up in New York, home to the Bronx Zoo’s World of Darkness– an enclosure in the park on an opposite daylight schedule, where bats and other nocturnal creatures reside.

“And,” she added, “I like vampires.”

But her recent interest didn’t come about until about five years ago, when Carolyn visited Bracken Cave in South Texas to see the bat emergence there (she wrote about it for The New Yorker). She hadn't known what to expect, but it was spectacular: “It was peak emergence, and 20 million bats flew out of this cave. It was the craziest natural phenomenon I'd ever seen.”

We heard a tap on a microphone, and a ranger appeared at the head of the amphitheater.

“Should we care about bats?” asked the ranger. “Should we care about a creature that only comes out at night?”

The crowd of travelers– a variety of roadtrippers, families, guests old and young– replied with a scattered “yes.”

The ranger explained that there are differences between city bats, who are used to crowds, traffic and sirens, and country bats, who are used to undisturbed quiet. I thought briefly about the ways in which I’ve become a country bat. After years of living in the desert, I’m more inclined towards quiet myself.

The lecture worked: once the first bat flew out, the crowd went silent. Like, completely silent. We all sat there, eyes trained towards the cave, waiting.

And then, a build: it sounded like a breeze, like wind generating in a fan. For a moment, there was nothing, then suddenly, everything.

Thousands of bats poured out of the cave at once, swooping up into a spiraling “batnado”– a funnel of bats swirling towards the sky, together, carving a path towards the horizon, like a school of fish stamped into the sky.

Then there’s the smell, which I can only describe as deeply mammalian– musky like cattle. Though the scent was unmistakably land, there was something aquatic about the sound of their flight: the bats’ wings made a noise like the rush of a river. Otherwise, they were fairly quiet, or, so it seemed:

“You can’t hear it, but they’re all screaming,” said Carolyn. “They’re living in this whole other sensory world.” She imagines that world as one of camaraderie, a group hyping each other up: “Inside, they’re like, ‘tonight’s the night guys!’ and then they fly out like a team rushing a field.”

I am not an outdoorsy person. The fact that I live in the West Texas desert is a mystery to most who know me. Truthfully, I hadn’t expected much. I’d seen an emergence in Austin long ago– the famed flight of city bats bursting from under the Congress Avenue Bridge, metropolitan sounds foregrounding the experience. But the emergence in Carlsbad shocked me and reinstilled some deep faith in the beauty of the universe. The quiet, the persistence of ritual, and the enormity of the bats’ complete world was life-affirming.


Whites City

Whites City Gift Shop
Zoe Kurland
Whites City Gift Shop

Marfa to the Carlsbad Caverns is a 2.5 hour drive. You ride through Van Horn and then nothingness until you hit Whites City, which is home to the Dante’s Inferno of gift shops: an unassuming souvenir store leads first into a room staged like a saloon, then into an uncanny area filled with cafeteria tables, ice, assorted taxidermy and life-sized animal statues.


Caló

Bronca- a noun that means a fight or conflict. It comes from the Spanish word, bronco, which means harsh, ungovernable, or brutish. In Caló, it means the tension that a bronco generates, not the fight itself but the bad feelings and unease that leads up to one.

Caló is a borderland dialect. You can find more episodeshere.


Other recent programming:

In places like the Big Bend, where hospitals and clinics are in short supply, people often turn to calling 911 just for basic medical care - like calling a doctor. Experts say this is a big problem: it keeps ambulances from being able to respond to real emergencies - and it puts a financial strain on hospitals when people repeatedly show up to the ER for non-emergencies. A growing healthcare model called “community paramedicine” aims to tackle the problem. Travis Bubenik has that story here.

Paramedic Alexandria Hollenbeck and Terlingua Fire and EMS Chief Susan Martin are involved in the first community paramedicine program in rural Terlingua, Texas.
Travis Bubenik
Paramedic Alexandria Hollenbeck and Terlingua Fire and EMS Chief Susan Martin are involved in the first community paramedicine program in rural Terlingua, Texas.

The onetime leader of a cartel in the Mexican border city of Ojinaga is facing the likelihood of life in prison after pleading guilty in a drug trafficking case that began when authorities found him wandering alone along a rural border highway in Texas. Travis Bubenik has that story here.

Turns out bats are on everyone's minds this week. Completely coincidentally, this week's Nature Notes episode explores the lives of endangered Mexican long-nosed bats, also called "agave bats" that roost in the Chisos Mountains. Check it out here.


High Five

This week's playlist is an MPR staff collab inspired by silent screams, rushing the field, and collective flight formations.

  1. Vampires - Bat For Lashes
  2. Townie - Mitski
  3. Fast as You Can - Fiona Apple
  4. Much Higher - Kacy Hill
  5. Assume Form - James Blake

Because I couldn't take pictures of any bats at the Caverns, I asked the Marfa Public Radio staff to draw some:

Bats drawn by the MPR staff. Guess who drew which bat.
Bats drawn by the MPR staff. Guess who drew which bat.

    You can find all of our music shows on our Mixcloud.


    PSAs

    The Marfa Chamber Of Commerce is seeking nominations for the 2024 Marfa Lights Festival Grand Marshal.

    Do you know someone who embodies the spirit of Marfa, has made significant contributions to the town or is just a true champion of the West?

    Submit your nominations now through Monday, July 15 at MarfaChamberOfCommerce.org.

    If you have PSAs you want on the air or in this newsletter, head to www.marfapublicradio.org/psa.

    Zoe Kurland is a senior producer at Marfa Public Radio.