Words and pictures: Luke Turner
A hallucination is a half truth, an uncanny blooming in a mind off-kilter. I was left perplexed by my May walk in Epping Forest, when the gathering twilight under the trees had triggered a vision of an abject figure to the side of a path. Who was he? I half expected a telephone call, but after a week or so keeping an eye on the websites and Twitter accounts of local newspapers and police I assumed that no corpse was discovered hanging from a rope around the grotesque limb of a beech pollard. Yet like a few frames of a personal horror film on an endless loop he was stuck in my flighty imagination, head in hands and a rope above him.
I clearly needed something to break the conspiracy between my urban-dweller's neurotic fears and the truculent forest night. Might science be the answer? The bats that flashed black against the dusk had made for an unusual comfort amid the sweaty panic of that walk. Though bats have long been a ghoulish staple of fantasy writing and film alike, I find their extraordinary abilities to fly and hunt in the inky darkness fascinating, rather than unsettling. I wondered if understanding them in the forest as they swerved through the trees might give me my own, more rational, night vision.
I Facebooked Rory, a brilliant music journalist who's semi-retired from ascribing meaning to techno 12-inches - to which my only reaction is "OOOOOF!" - in favour of a PhD in ecology. He'd recently acquired a bat detector, a device that resembles a mobile phone from a documentary about Maggie Thatcher's yuppies, and I suggested he might like to try using it in a location slightly less suburban than his allotment in Muswell Hill. For obvious reasons, we know far less about the British bat population than we do the birds who rule the skies during the day. Following a period of decline just after the Second World War, recent surveys by the Bat Conservation Trust suggest that for most of our 18 UK resident species, numbers are now stable or increasing. Rory has been working on a project using crowd-sourced 'Citizen Science' to identify bat calls from the vast databank of recordings from both amateur and professional biologists, in an attempt to get a better grasp of their behaviour and populations. Ten of the British bat species have been recorded in Epping Forest, including three types of pipistrelle and the daubenton, which specialises in scooping insects struggling in the surface film of rivers and ponds. Rory was fairly sure we'd find some at Connaught Water, the large man-made lake near to Chingford Plain.
On a bench by the southern bank Rory, his girlfriend Sian and I sat and waited for the dark. With the summer solstice a few days away, the western sky stubbornly remained the blue of a seaside swimming pool on an old picture postcard. We talked about the foreboding oddness that had sunk over London in the week before the EU referendum. A jogger on the path kicked and punched at the air as if he'd left his mosquito repellent at home. On the other side of the lake a group of men broke the evening quiet with brusque voices. They echoed across the water beneath the swifts, hunting on wings that curve like 1930s blueprints for futurist aircraft. As the flies dancing above the dragon flower, rushes and cow parsley disappeared into the gathering gloom, I wondered what signal from light or temperature causes the avian insect hunters of the day to surrender the skies to the airborne mammals of the night. Rory suggested walking the path back to the forest margins, as the bats like to use them to get around as well as hunt, but aside from picking up our hayfever sneezes the detector remained frustratingly silent. Feeling impatient, I wanted to jump up and start screaming RELEASE THE BATS like a daft, welly-clad Nick Cave. Finally there was a sudden rattle, the high-frequency emissions of the bats transposed to a lower wavelength, audible to the human ear. It's not dissimilar from one of the experimental electronic records Rory is so good at reviewing and he spotted the source right away, following the sound with detector arm outstretched towards a small oak, around which the first bat of the night was hunting. After an aeon of waiting I was so excited by the zipping crescendos that I barely noticed the angry human yells starting to come through the trees.
The photoreceptor rods in the back of the retina are what enable the human eye to have at least some night vision. That rattling ebb and flow of the bat detector seemed to enhance them, giving me a strange sense of heightened power in the gloaming. I felt as if I was in a video game, able to track the bats with more than just my eyes. No longer just shapes flitting through our peripheral vision, the bats were as agile as the swifts - and far less remote - as they jinked and twisted in the air just a few feet from our faces. Again and again the detector trilled in the instant before the tiny abdomen, wings and legs of invertebrates were mashed in a high-velocity impact with rows of teeth. As I bent over to scratch a fresh insect bite on my leg I wondered what bats think to the taste of human blood when they scarf a midge and, as I stood up, I saw in the distant gloom a group of figures. The pale blotches of their faces slowed and stopped. They were the shouting men.
"You alright, mate?"
I've heard that "you alright?" and the barbed, vicious "mate" many times before, thick with lager and late night fast food, outside the boozers in the crap commuter town where I grew up. It's never intended as a question, more a warning that however 'alright' you are now, that pleasant state of existence is unlikely to endure for much longer. Trying to sound nonchalant but probably squeaking much like a worried bat, I shouted something about being fine, thank you very much. The pale blotches gathered together and started walking towards us.
The bat detector was going full pelt now, stuttering like a geiger counter. Acts of glory are generally imagined after the event when it's too late, and I'll end up wishing we'd defended our honour by pretending it was a radioactive stun gun. I'm not sure whether he was too excited about the bat readings to notice what was going on, but Rory said we should tell the rapidly advancing posse that we're researching bats for the Epping Forest biodiversity team. With nobody else around and a few grand's worth of eavesdropping equipment at stake, I wasn't keen to hang around to see if they were curious locals eager to reduce their nature deficit or, as I suspected, lads with an enthusiasm for the violent end of banter taking advantage of the dark to intimidate hapless night walkers. Unlike flies, I can spot a nasty threat and a sticky end approaching and in any case, I have a strict rule in these situations that discretion is always the better part of valour.
So we peg it.
We'd have looked ridiculous in the daylight, not quite running but not walking either, fast-waddling back down towards Connaught Water, the voices menacing and getting louder behind us. I considered leaving the path and crouching in the undergrowth, perhaps where the streaming rush of the waterfall from the lake into the River Ching would camouflage us. My SAS bushcraft fantasies were ignored in favour of speed and we ended up in the car park on Ranger Road, crossing it before finally heading off-piste in the direction of the London Overground station. Catching our breath we paused to listen, but neither shouts nor heavy forms came crashing through the brambles.
In the rush we'd not noticed the rising of the moon. Up here, the lunar glow beats the dull orange of London, picking out the leaves of the oaks in monochrome, like the wavelets of a sea on a grey day. Amid a growing sense of calm, the bat detector occasionally rattled and zapped as the clouds continued to clear and the forest brightened around us. Sian started at something to the edge of the path: "Really?" she said; "now this?" Epping Forest is scattered with little piles of dead branches that by day are stand-ins for Eyeore's house but at night might be lairs for warty goblins. Sian had spotted one lurking to the right on the edge of a clearing, its triangular entry a pitchy maw. Yet even writing in the bright hum of the library a few weeks later, I can remember how startled I was to not feel spooked.
We didn't see the group of men or youths or schoolkids or whoever they were again. Annoyed that they'd disturbed our hunt, we went for a commiserative pint at what was once the Royal Forest Hotel, now a Brewers Fayre Premiere Inn. "Lakes attract dickheads," Rory observed. So does Epping Forest, just as it will hide you from them. Use the darkness, stay alert, steer clear of the shouting men and then the night won't give you so much to fear. I looked into the milky grey glow of the trees that covered our escape and felt that my relationship to the nocturnal forest had shifted, perhaps even ready to accept, if not enjoy, the weird visions directed by my subconscious primeval response to a wooded landscape. Give me these wraiths of the imagination and the paper wings of the bats; give me the empty inhuman night, whose only fists are in my mind.
Luke Turner is co-founder and editor of online music and arts magazine The Quietus. He has also contributed to Q, The Guardian, NME, MOJO and the BBC and is currently researching a book on Epping Forest.