For my birthday a week or so ago, I received some rather splendid bat jewellery. My sister and brother-in-law (the editor of this blog) gave me a jewelled necklace with a long-eared bat in the centre. My niece gave me matching earrings.
Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I should emphasise that this wasn’t because they didn’t like me, or because they were hinting that I’m a bit batty. No, it’s because I love bats – they are my favourite animals – and they know that I collect bat-themed objects.
I have rings, a bracelet, and now a necklace and earrings based on bat designs. I have rubber bats of various sizes, and furry bats too. One of these is enormous. He hangs on my wardrobe door in what I like to think is quite a regal way. He was also a present from my relations. He was given to me one Christmas and I spent Christmas Day stroking his beautiful furry body and elegant wings.
It doesn’t stop there. I have bat keyrings and fridge magnets. I even have a knitted bat which laughs squeakily, and somewhat manically, when you press its tummy. And I have a splendid bat door-knocker, given to me as a house-warming present by my brother. (One lodger thought it was an ironic comment on my disability.)
So, why bats?
I may have mentioned that I fell in love with Dracula whilst watching a TV adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel back in the 1970s. I was probably around 15 or 16 and a soon as Louis Jordan, who was playing the title role, said, “I am Dracula,” I was smitten. When the actor died a few years ago, I hoped one of the many TV channels would show the film again, but none did.
I don’t, however, just love mythical bats. I think bats are amazing creatures. I love their furry bodies, their pointy ears, and their little fingers at the ends of their wings. Sadly, of course, I can’t see them, although I’m told that some have been spotted in my garden. I can’t hear them, either, as the noises they make are at frequencies beyond the range of human hearing.
I must have seen them at one time, though, because the picture in my mind of what a bat looks like is so vivid.
When could I have seen a bat? I don’t recall the occasion. Perhaps I saw them at a zoo or on television when I was little, before I lost my eyesight. Perhaps I am just drawing on memories of pictures. Still, I know I have seen bats somewhere.
As I think about this, I wonder how many animals I actually have seen. Have I pictured some in my mind for so long that I mistakenly think I have seen them in the flesh?
I can remember the blue whale in the Natural History Museum in London. It was so huge that, as a small child, it gave me a slightly edgy thrill to stand in the gallery alongside it. I know I saw penguins swimming underwater at a zoo or wildlife park. There are other creatures, too, that I remember seeing in the flesh and whose images I can still conjure up, including elephants, giraffes and bears.
But what about aardvarks?
I don’t think I have ever seen one. Does this mean that the image of an aardvark that I see in my mind is just something that I have conjured up from scratch, or was there a description in a book somewhere that wormed its way into my brain?
I thought about this a lot when I encountered a tactile picture of a wildebeest recently. I realised that, before I touched the graphic, I couldn’t have told you what one looked like.
I don’t know much about the working of the human brain but it does make me wonder how accurate a picture anyone can create who hasn’t seen an animal for themselves. I expect you all know the story of the four blind men who each feel one part of an elephant and conclude from that small area that they know what the animal looks like. Imagine, though, how difficult it might be to conceive the size of a whale or picture what a rhino’s horn looks like if you have never seen either in the flesh.
There are many more tactile images around now than there were when I was a child, and plenty of furry toy representations of wildlife are also available. I have quite a collection myself. A cuddly octopus, a velvety raven and a plush duck-billed platypus all adorn the back of my sofa. Despite their unusual shapes, I have pretty good idea of what they all look like because I have been able to feel them.
Size, though, is difficult to convey. After all, what do you use for comparison?
“It’s the height of this house.”
Okay, so how high is that? I know I’m being a bit pedantic now. You can walk to the top floor of a building and get an idea of its height but, still, I’m sure you take my meaning.
It is said that no two people see colour the same. I expect it is true that perception in general is very individual. So, perhaps, it doesn’t matter if a blind person’s idea of an elephant is different from that of a sighted person but I can’t help feeling that there is a great research project for a keen student somewhere, exploring how our brains manufacture images without having a picture to look at.
But, be all that as it may, I think I have a pretty good idea of what a bat looks like. And I think that it’s a beautiful creature.