Bat detection walk with New Cross Commoners

On 30th September, following many solo bat walks, historical research and electronic tinkering, I co-convened a bat walk with the New Cross Commoners. Here’s one account, told here by me but structured around its many participants.

NEW X COMMONERS: The Commoners explore and engage in processes of commoning in and about New Cross. In this way they find new ways to share resources and to connect with their local environment and communities. I met them last year through a walk they organised to explore the sites of the old Deptford docks and discuss how gentrification and development worked against local people. We gather on the pathway outside the Dog and Bell pub. Not everyone who comes is from the Commoners, but what we will do together is a form of commoning in at least two respects. First, it’s a confluence of knowledges - my and (especially) Sian’s knowledge of bats and bat detection; the understanding of the area possessed by the Commoners, routes and access points; the more ‘tacit’ knowledge of group formation, movement and sustenance. The second is a commoning of awareness: we formed a network, a sensory swarm who’s seeing, feeling and hearing ran past the edges of our group and allowed us to make discoveries together.

HETERODYNE DETECTORS: These are not to be seen as simply instrumental, rather as interesting-in-themselves appendages to our normal sensory register. An internal oscillator is tuned to vibrate in harmony with frequencies gathered up by its microphone, allowing them to speak to us. We have several that were kindly lent to us by the Bat Trust; we try to get to know this strange circuit, click fingers, jangle keys at a distance to understand its range. It is a device with many histories, originating in radio signal transmission but colliding with early 20th century zoological studies. Echolocation itself was only demonstrated in the 1930s. These geneologies run through and bring out the joys of the circuit’s aural weirdness.

map of route taken

DEPTFORD: An area in south-east London, between New Cross and Greenwich. Despite my earlier explorations with the Commoners my knowledge here is sketchy and vague, I can describe the surface but have little idea of the people who live in the houses and the histories that run benath it. Our Deptford wanderings start slowly - we explore the green first, then divert through a housing estate and along a churchyard. Rustling leaves, bicycle wheels all call for our attention. At creekside stand a variety of buildings - a few older, most recently built and one a very stark development of flats in jagged glass towers. What structures could the bats find homes in? The scene enacts the possible consequence of development and gentrification upon the different beings of the city, that streets were also homes were also habitats.

It’s suggested that we take a detour to the lifting bridge at ha’penny hatch, which overlooks Deptford Creek. The combination of vegetation left to grow wild and the water of the creek is perfect for bats, but possibly it is too late in the year for them to come this far from their roosts. Our gathering becomes an obstruction to cyclists on the bridge, and so we line either side before deciding to move on.

We explore the Sue Godfrey nature reserve, finding an odd source of ultrasound among the grasses that then disappears. Could it be some other animal? Rats echolocate as well, in a slightly more crude manner, but is their chatter ultrasonic? We scatter, a strange sensory swarm of barely seeing eyes, alert but tired ears and purring electrical machines. But we find nothing further here, and make it together across Deptford Church Street to continue our journey.

BATS: It has been possibly a full hour of walking when we at last find them, darting and fluttering in the trees verging St Paul’s Church. There are at most two or three - at this time of year, bats are mating and preparing to hibernate, so it is more challenging to find them. We arraign ourselves along the church wall, detectors pointing over to the trees, to hear their strange slappy-click-kisses. Who were they? Many bats are attracted to churches, their towers and spires are cool and undisturbed. I try to identify the exact species through the frequency of their calls, but fail - there are too many bat detectors going at different settings. Does it matter what species they were?

entrance to the old tildemill wildlife garden

ASSEMBLY: Owen takes us to the Old Tildemill Wildlife Garden, a space run by a group called Assembly, not far from the church. The garden is structured in concentric circles, with a pond and island in the middle. It’s darker than other spaces we’ve explored. I try to take photos, but it is having none of it. Even without light it is clear that it’s a beautiful space - it reminds me not so much of the patches of woodland I used to go to as a child, but of the spaces I explored within cities trying to rediscover them.

While we explore the garden our swarm began to disassemble. The space itself is energising, but our slow, exploratory wander had been surprisingly tiring, and so a few decide it’s time to head for the comforts of home. We head back to the pub, and a few more say their goodbyes.

PUB: We meet back at the Dog and Bell pub for discussion. I show GPS maps of previous solo-bat walks, revealing my appalling navigation skills, double-backing over familiar territory. I relay some of my stranger experiences whilst exploring. We talk about our experience of using the heterodyne detectors this evening - not just detecting bats, but also of exploring the ultrasoundscape of the city. What would make it likely to move these techniques into other mediums and devices? Was it desirable? The precarity of the bats was brought into relation to the different places that we visited, some of which are threatened by development. Why are some spaces, communities and creatures held to have worth, while others can be brushed away? How can and do we create alliances to protect them?