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Flying Blind

Finding endangered bats helped Don Mitchell ’69 find himself

On a summer night in 2012, Don Mitchell ’69 leaned forward, scarcely daring to breathe. These were his 150 acres of Vermont farm, fields, and woods—had been since 1972—but tonight, they felt different. 

He felt different. 

Three years earlier, he’d surprised himself by agreeing to work with state fish and wildlife officials to help a rare Vermont population of Indiana bats recover—a species that had been federally declared endangered since 1967. 

The idea was to thin his forest canopy around shagbark hickories, a favorite summer roosting place, so that the bats could more easily hunt, sleep, and raise their young.

Before the trees could be cleared, however, officials tasked Mitchell to spend two years removing invasive plant species—not for the bats’ welfare, but for that of native plants.

It was ludicrous, really: him, of all people, with his lifelong distrust of authority, crawling through underbrush to uproot garlic mustard and chainsawing spiky buckthorn, only to present his forestry work for approval by bureaucrats who likely spent more time behind a desk than out in the field.

But he had done it all, and now they were here, checking gossamer-thin mist nets by moonlight to see how many bats they could tag and release.

“Bat!” shouted one of the team members. They lowered the net and began the delicate process of using a pencil’s sharpened point to untangle the tiny, squeaking creature.

Mitchell’s heart raced; he had never seen a bat up close before.

But there she was, hissing in a biologist’s gloved hand. Any bat would be a welcome catch, but this was an Indiana bat, the reason behind it all. Best of all, she was pregnant.

Staring into her beady eyes, Mitchell felt a wondrous and wild shock: part recognition of a fellow mammal, part recognition of himself. 

Could it be possible, he wondered, that she and he were thinking the same thing in that moment: “How did I get here?”



At home on his farm in Vergennes, Vt., Mitchell is eager to discuss that night as well as his book, Flying Blind: One Man’s Adventures Battling Buckthorn, Making Peace with Authority, and Creating a Home for Endangered Bats (Chelsea Green)

His voice is soft; his hair is wild. Walking with a slight limp—he just had his first surgery, ever, a minor procedure—he sits down, surrounded by books. Everything about his manner is quiet, but there is force in his speech and a flash in his eyes.

Mitchell grew up in southern New Jersey, a self-described “straight-arrow conformist all-star student” who was his high school’s valedictorian. When he chose Swarthmore for its bohemian, beatnik atmosphere, his teachers wept.

“They never really forgave me,” he remembers. “They told me I was going to a pinko school, and I’d never live it down.”

At Swarthmore, he met his wife, Cheryl Warfield ’71 (“a truly uninhibited spirit with a wide sense of possibility for herself and for others”) when he crashed a freshman mixer at Sharples. After hitchhiking to San Francisco for the Summer of Love in 1967, they built a makeshift shelter in Crum Woods and lived in it that autumn.

Their adventures inspired him to write Thumb Tripping, “The New Novel That Says All There Is To Say About The Marijuana Society,” per its jacket. Published shortly after Mitchell’s graduation, the novel impressed film executives, who hired him to adapt it. Although the 1972 movie would become a cult favorite—don’t miss Bruce Dern as a knife-wielding motorist—the experience rang hollow.

“Hollywood turned out not to be my cup of tea. For one thing, I don’t like being told what to do—and a 22-year-old screenwriter was destined to be told what to do by a wide array of colleagues and collaborators,” he writes in Flying Blind. “Cheryl and I recognized, too, that there were contradictions between our professed countercultural values and the über-materialism of the film world.” 

Forsaking Los Angeles and their new yellow Porsche, the two moved to Vermont to join the thousands of young idealists buying up old farms to milk goats, grow organic vegetables, and otherwise participate in the “greening of America”—a movement that would transform the state from a conservative to a liberal bastion.

Naming their land Treleven—in honor of Mitchell’s father’s last name by birth—Don and Cheryl started a family. As they built a life together on the farm, they also developed separate careers outside of it. From 1984 until 2009, Mitchell taught creative writing, film, and environmental literature at Middlebury College—simultaneously daunted and inspired by his lack of a Ph.D.

But what about the bats?

“Ah, the bats,” he says. For the first time in the interview, he smiles.



Over the years, Mitchell has made improvements to Treleven Farm by designing and constructing more than a dozen low-cost, energy-efficient buildings and structures as well as developing the land itself. 

He first realized there were bats on his property in the 1980s, after he dug a new pond. Twilight sent them swooping and dipping out of the adjacent woods, skimming the water in search of mosquitoes. 

“They had these herky-jerky, skittering maneuvers. Now you see it, now you don’t. Our kids would be fascinated, but we told them that once the bats had started coming out it was a sign for us to head up to the house,” he writes. “Humans and bats, we told them, don’t really mix.”

As plentiful as they seemed, the bats would soon face the worst wildlife disease outbreak in North American history.

In 2006, experts detected a strange phenomenon among certain hibernating bats. Caves carpeted with bat bones and bodies revealed weakened survivors clinging to the ceiling, their muzzles, wings, and bodies dusted white.

Dubbed white-nose syndrome (WNS), the epidemic is caused by a fungus that flourishes in the cold caves and mines where hibernating bats winter. Transmitted by body contact, the fungus ravages bats’ skin and wings, causing them to awaken early and often from hibernation, depleting their fat reserves before they’re able to feed again. 

Scientists believe that human cave visitors carried this fungus from Europe—where bat populations have had generations to adapt—to North America, where native bats lack any such evolutionary defenses. 

With no cure and 90 percent mortality in certain hibernacula, WNS cases have been confirmed in 26 states, five Canadian provinces, and even northeastern China. It has caused the death of an estimated 6.7 million North American bats, endangering several species. In fact, during the winter of 2008–09, the overall Indiana bat population declined by approximately 17 percent.

Recovery, at best, will be difficult and slow, since bats are among the slowest-reproducing animals in the world for their size.



Against this backdrop, Vermont Fish and Wildlife officials identified Treleven for its unique geography as a site of interest in 2009 and offered Mitchell money—not much, but some—and technical resources to optimize the enormous potential of his forest. 

During the summer, Indiana bats prefer to live under loose tree bark, like that found on Treleven’s remarkable number of shagbark hickories. In fact, an excellent roost tree can host several hundred mother bats and their pups.

Swallowing his distaste for authority, Mitchell acquiesced to the demands of the state officials, whose dependence on protocol frequently conflicted with the reality and scope of the work.

They insisted that, with every step he took, Mitchell had to be careful not to upset the forest’s ecological balance, which meant crawling on his hands and knees through 5 acres of woods, day after day, acquiring tick scares and scars, as he painstakingly identified then culled invasive plants. Although Cheryl and some friends helped when they could, Mitchell completed the lion’s share of the job alone.

As laborious as the process was, Mitchell discovered that it was ultimately a gift. Devoting himself, mind and body, to physically working his land in service of bats felt like an opportunity to honor the vision that first called Cheryl and him to New England. 

And faced with an abundance of time and an endless, monotonous task to perform, he found himself clearing away psychological and emotional brush and brambles, including repressed memories of abuse by his grandfather. 

Weeding, both externally and internally, helped him analyze the formation of his personality, and as he worked, he began to recognize parallels between the way he—like these threatened bat populations—had to fight and evolve.



In preparation for this piece, Mitchell reread Flying Blind while reflecting on his alma mater.

“It’s a very unusual piece of work that, I think, shows I went to a college like Swarthmore,” he says. “I emerged from that pressure cooker with a sense that I could do anything, and the book comes across that way, too—moving pretty effortlessly between evolutionary biology, theological philosophy, and the metaphor of chainsawing.”

When Mitchell reflects on the bat project, he looks back on his journey. Each step has been seemingly random—raised as a conservative Baptist, then becoming a right-wing high-school student who worked for Nixon, then developing into a notorious countercultural figure, then a farmer, then an academician of his own devising, and then, at last, an environmental steward.

We’re more like bats than we care to admit, he says, and our lives mirror their ungraceful yet utterly extraordinary flight. Fragile yet ferocious, we share an immense will to survive and to find our own way.

Looking back on the night that the team tagged the pregnant Indiana bat, Mitchell sees it as a turning point. Not only was it gratifying to know that his forest work has helped ease, however slightly, these bats’ long and uncertain road to repopulation, but it proved that his life choices have brought him exactly where he always wanted to go—even when he didn’t quite know it yet.

“Befriending bats had been a means to figure out, against all odds, where in the world I actually was. And exactly who I was,” he concludes. “And to participate—thankfully, joyfully—in the wild party that keeps going on around us.” 

+ discover more at the Treleven website

Bats in Brief

6 inches–6 feet

range of wingspans, from Thailand and Burma’s bumblebee bat to the Philippines’s giant golden-crowned flying fox

50 million

years in existence. Modern humans are only 200,000 years old.


year lifespan


of 5,400 known mammalian species are bats.


According to Micaela Jemison of Bat Conservation International (BCI)

Bats save us up to $53 billion a year in pest control. One bat can eat up to 1,200 mosquitos in an hour. Bats pollinate agave plants, from which we derive tequila Crucial seed-dispersers, fruit bats help regenerate human-razed rainforests.


Alas, most human hearts seem immune to the charms of Chiroptera—an order that means “hand-wing”—despite the exuberance of their enormous ears, the leathery wonder of their wings, the pink of their puppylike tongues.

Perhaps the instinctual horror many feel toward bats, however, lies within rather than without. As Theodore Roethke writes in his poem, “The Bat,” we are afraid upon seeing a bat up close, “For something is amiss or out of place/When mice with wings can wear a human face.”