Flying Blind
One Man's Adventures Battling Buckthorn,
Making Peace with Authority, and
Creating a Home for Endangered Bats

Don Mitchell
(Chelsea Green)
In the 60s Don Mitchell drove around in a VW bus with decals, wore his hair long, and smoked dope. He convinced his draft board that he was a "a pacifist deserving C. O. status: an objector to war on grounds of conscience." After two years of alternative non-military service, he and his love, Cheryl, ended up in Vermont and because he had written a successful novel (which he sold to Hollywood, making a bundle) they had the cash to buy a 150 acre farm where they lived peacefully on the land, raising sheep and working at Middlebury College nearby.

Move forward to 2007, and the feds come to visit. Not to draft him to go to Afghanistan but to draft him to build a flyway: pruning back trees, opening up others, getting rid of invasive plants, and doing studies of flight patterns and building nesting areas. For bats.

"Had someone from the government come to me in 1972," he tells us, "and asked permission to trap bats on our land - - - I would have sent him packing."

    Almost as soon as I "went back to the land," though, government authority became cast in a different light. Every county had an agricultural office where bureaucrats were paid to see that folks like me succeeded at their efforts to make good at farming - - - and could throw some taxpayer money in a farmer's direction if he would perform some specified practices.

Thus we hippies got coöpted, explaining to ourselves that the hydra we call "government" had a few extra loose heads that could be knocked about for our own gain.

The beestie in question is the Indiana bat, Myotis sodalis, that had been deemed "endangered." (Remember those halcyon days when our government was still concerned about endangered species, not endangered wars in foreign lands?)

Vermont Fish and Game wanted to protect these bats - - - along with eight other species, to build flyways and nesting areas. They offered to pay Mitchell to cull plants and beef up the Shagbark hickory that offered the bats an ideal home to raise a family of little batlings, give him official government money to improve his farm and be an ecological good guy. Don and Cheryl signed on, and this is their story.

And it's a dandy. Mitchell is a writer who knows how to construct an intelligible sentence, and knows how to convey the obscure lore that is part and parcel of local Fish & Game operations, The Forest Management Plan and "the program known as WHIP," under the aegis of the NRCS, within the hydra-headed USDA bureaucracy.

He also gets immersed in the industrial-strength frustrations of working with the feds and the wildlife management of Vermont. He also learns bat-lore - - - even bats named after the state of Indiana - - - especially all there is to know about the plague known as "White nose bat syndrome," an infection that has already killed off millions of them in the United States.

And, while we are learning to fret about our beloved bats and what they have going on in their little bat-noses, with Mitchell we get to agonize over other existential questions. For instance, why are all the leaves of a tree of the same shape (why couldn't a few of them be round, or triangular, or box-shaped?); what is meant by "invasive species" (are humans also "invasive" - - - for that matter, are bats?); is it ever good to use poison like glysophate on simple plants in the wild; what is the art of using a chain saw; how does one "girdle" a tree; and how about that Great Vermont Ice Storm during which the Mitchell family had their electricity shut off for weeks, and the forest was

    a war zone. Each explosive burst of noise would echo off the back cliff, then bounce against the glass facade of our house. After the storm had passed and the ice had melted, I ventured into the woods to check for damage - - - and after fifty yards I sat down and cried.
There has always been a tradition in music and literature of let's get out of the city, let's get Back to the Land. It probably started with Vergil's Georgics, looped through Shakespeare*** and Defoe (what is Robinson Crusoe but back-to-the-soil survival story in high relief?) In the nineteenth century, the countryside was suddenly filled with romantic rustics turned bucolic in the hands of Wordsworth and Handel and Coleridge and Thoreau and John Clare and Pietro Mascagni. Then finally, in our own era, this very longing is rendered comic by the likes of Mark Twain, Hayden Carruth, Ambrose Bierce, Betty MacDonald, Sidney J. Perelman . . . and Mitchell.

Who learns, halfway through Flying Blind, after mastering the strictures on combatting invasive plants in bat flyways (garlic mustard is a big no-no, the 5,000 or so of these plants had to be yanked by hand from the ground ); and he suddenly realizes that he has been turned into a drudge of the very government that appeared so generous a few months before.

Mitchell reminds us that he has, in his day, been a successful teacher, "opened the minds of kids to literature and film," had designed "houses and barns and sheds" . . . helped raise two children "both of whom had turned out well." Moreover,

    I had presided over reasonably happy lives for five thousand baby lambs, and kept the flock of ewes who raised them well fed for thirty years. And now I was inching through the woods on my hands and knees, working for the government at what seemed like a slave wage. I had transformed myself into a serf. Maybe there was light at the end of this tunnel, maybe my efforts would eventually help the bats. But for the present I kept feeling like an idiot - - - like a man on a downward trajectory.

We have often claimed here that the best humor writing must always include inflation of facts, a few hoary puns - - - plus an overweening feeling of exasperation. Flying Blind has these out the gazoo. Their job, Mitchell says, was to

    Turn an objectionably crowded patch of forest into what would serve as an all-night diner [for bats] . . . Here's your fly-through Bugger King, here's your McMosquito's.


    I'd been discovering that turning conversations to "the bat project" here was bound to win attention to any social gathering. With fond looks from admiring women, too. If I'd been a single guy, I could have gotten dates with it. Heck, if I'd been looking for love I would have had my hands full. What could be more sexy than a guy who owned a forest and was using it to save bats. I was like an eco-hero. I could come on like an environmental activist, and all I'd really done so far was sign a couple of forms.

And finally, in this volume, we have a serious bonus. Where Mitchell turns into a miner. Not a coal miner, god knows - - - but a digger into the soil of the psyche. His life story constructed upon the foundation of his father's odd ways. Why had Dad been so distant? Why did he sometimes stutter? Why was he always shouting orders? Why did he always know he was right? Why did he never to tell the truth of his life?

And as Mitchell digs further, he takes the reader beyond that. Were there times when he, the son, did the same - - - shout, always know he was right, even, on occasion, stutter? It's a fine story about a new invasive species: a trellis that winds its way through a family mixed with a story of isolated forests, working with bureaucrats, learning about bats - - - and soon learning, as he does, as we all must, that there is never such a thing as a free lunch.

And, in addition, that we are always end up being our father's (or mother's) mini-demi-semi-clone.

All along, we have the joy of getting to watch this charming old hippy prowling his forest, cutting cordwood with a Stihl chain-saw, cursing the all-entangling USDA, tramping the soil in the sleet or snow, even singing one of our favorite folk songs from way back then, when we were all little tads,

    When I was a little lad
    And so my mother told me,
    That if I did not kiss the girls
    My lips would grow all moldy,
    Weigh, haul away, we'll haul away Joe.

    Louis was the King of France
    Before the Revolution,
    Weigh, haul away, we'll haul away Joe,
    Then Louis got his head cut off
    Which spoiled his cons-ti-tu-tion.
    Weigh, haul away, we'll haul away Joe.
    Weigh, haul away, we'll haul for better weather,
    Weigh, haul away, we'll haul away Joe.

    Oh the cook is in the galley
    Making duff so handy
    Weigh, haul away, we'll haul away Joe,
    And the captain's in his cabin
    Drinkin' wine and brandy
    Weigh, haul away, we'll haul away Joe.
    Weigh, haul away, we'll haul for better weather,
    Weigh, haul away, we'll haul away Joe.

    ***From "As You Like It:"
    Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
    Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
    Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
    More free from peril than the envious court?
    Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
    The seasons' difference; as the icy fang
    And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
    Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
    Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
    "This is no flattery; these are counsellors
    That feelingly persuade me what I am."
    Sweet are the uses of adversity,
    Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
    Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
    And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
    Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
    Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
    I would not change it.
--- C. A. Amantea
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