This post is contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter from his archive. Read the previous post here.
There are few places on Earth where no life exists. From pole to pole, from the top of Everest to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, we find everything from single-celled bacteria to the multi-celled grizzly bear and every combination in between, whatever the territory will foster. But every once in a while, a life-form makes a startling appearance in a place we don’t expect to find it. One such place is inside my chimney.
Chimney swifts or spiders wouldn’t surprise me in the warm months when the wood stove stands idle and cold, but on the tail end of a long winter during which half a dozen cords of wood have wafted up the chimney in the form of choking smoke and all of its gagging, poisonous gases, not to mention the heat and the creosote and a total lack of anything friendly, the chimney is the last place I’d look for signs of life. I wouldn’t even call it a reasonable hideaway for a hibernator. Thus has been my thinking on chimneys until recently.
Two or three times a year I open the clean-out door at the base of the chimney and shovel the fallen flakes of creosote into a 5-gallon bucket. There’s usually a respectable pile of the stuff in there, but I’m glad to have it scale off the lining of the chimney rather than build up to become a fire hazard. Then I inspect the chimney with a mirror to be sure it looks nice and square with no dangerous accumulations in evidence.
This I did, not long ago, and then took the bucket outside. The creosote in the bucket was not as dry as I would like to have seen it, but we’ve been burning some greenish wood this year, so I wasn’t surprised. I left the bucket for a day or two and through as many nights when the temperature dropped below zero.
One morning I remembered and decided to empty it. I got a trowel and started broadcasting the black flakes over the piles of snow in the yard to hasten their melting under the early spring sun. The bucket was nearly empty, and as I scooped up the last of the stuff, I noticed something that was decidedly off-color and of a different texture. Then this novel bit of fluff opened its mouth to show a nice set of teeth . . . and squeaked! It was a little brown bat. I flipped it into the air, and it fluttered off behind the barn, somewhat unsure of its bearings.
That bat was rather a surprise, and its perplexing appearance in the bottom of my bucket of damp and frozen creosote set me to wondering. How could a bat have shown up in such a place at this time of year? It seemed unlikely it would have entered the chimney once it began spewing smoke back in September, and yet why didn’t I find the poor little devil the first time I cleaned the chimney early in the heating season, assuming the bat had crawled in there before the season started?
Perhaps it had been clinging to the crusty tile lining ever since, somewhere below the stove pipe thimble, and only since the last cleaning was the poor thing knocked down to the clean-out door by falling chunks. Even so, it must have been a terribly unpleasant winter – a living hell! Then to have been buried in a frozen heap of damp creosote for two days – it says more than a little about the tenacity of life.
Artist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. On October 7, 2021, Barnaby completed his tenure on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees after six years of service.