Artists' Spare Room | Saskia McCracken

The Spare Room

I’m a writer based in Glasgow and came to Eden Arts to work on my book, Awful Creatures: Encounters with Britain’s Unlovable Animals. It’s all about underappreciated species like rats, wasps, pigeons and slugs, and why we should care about them just as much as we care about polar bears, tigers and rhinos. During the residency, I focused on developing two of my chapters – one on bats and one on toads. The residency gave me the time and space I needed, away from multiple jobs and (too many?) hobbies, to really focus on my writing. I was based in The Old Fire Station in Penrith, which has been transformed into an arts centre, filled with paintings by local artists, signposts in Old Norse, and giant paper animals for their annual droving festival. It was also a great opportunity to meet the team at Eden Arts and learn more about what they do, which during my stay, involved preparing black pudding pies to be cast in bronze for a new sculpture!

The bat chapter recounts a bat walk I went on with a friend near the Scottish border. Each of us was given a bat detector, a device that translates echolocation (normally at too high a frequency for human ears) into sounds we can hear. We spent the night eavesdropping on the Whiskered Bat, which chirps like a small songbird, the Soprano Pipistrelle, which taps away like Morse code or a woodpecker, and the Noctule, which could be mistaken for a spaceship, or swooping light sabres. I spent the week in Penrith writing up the experience and weaving in all the research I’ve done on superstitions around bats, and how intensive agriculture and habitat fragmentation is causing British bat populations to decline.

Here are a few superstitious beliefs I’ve come across: bats make you invisible, are portents of rain, bedbugs, death in the family, and bad luck. Bats at a wedding mean a troubled marriage. Killing a bat shortens your life, but bats on the kitchen ceiling are a lucky omen. Bats flying vertically up and down signal the witching hour and in 1332, Lady Jacaume of Bayonne, a French noblewoman, was burned to death as a witch because bats were swarming near her house! Of course, if bats were ill omens before, now they’re the ones that are unlucky, thanks to human activity.

Travelling between my host in Carlisle and the Old Fire Station in Penrith meant I got a glimpse of the Lake District countryside, which is at the centre of exciting conservation work and home to many of the animals I discuss in the book, including bats, crows, toads, pollinating insects and much more. Each morning the journey reminded me why I’m writing this book, and why we need to care about the species with which we share the world.

Toads also have a fascinating history, and their venom has been used for both medicine and murder for hundreds of years. But their numbers are declining too. I’m planning a trip to the Scottish Solway Coast to learn more about natterjack toads, with a licensed conservationist (it’s a criminal offence to disturb the toads, which are protected by law). In 1983, there were around 4,000 natterjacks in the Scottish Solway area, now, only around 40 years later, there are about 250. I’m hoping to find out more about what we can do to turn things around for these creatures, so that like the bats, humans can change their luck for the better. Maybe in the next 40 years, we can see more toads, and hear more bats wielding lightsabres in the dark.

You can watch a short film with Saskia here.

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