The world that we see and experience is not the same one that birds, bees, or buffalo see. Their perspective, their sensory capabilities, their instincts and evolutionary priorities, all present reality for them in completely different ways. In fact they may not even ‘see’ the world. Humans are highly visual, and we make sense of our surroundings through our eyes. Other animals smell or hear their way around, their brains designed for an olfactory or auditory landscape.
It’s a fascinating thought, and one that most of us might idly contemplate while out walking. Charles Foster wants to know “what it is like to be a wild thing”, and he’s prepared to go to some lengths to find out. His way into an animal’s perspective is to attempt, as far as is possible, to live like them.
For the chapter on badgers, Foster dug himself a dirt tunnel in a Welsh hillside and lived in it for six weeks. He slept during the day and came out at night to crawl around in the woods, sniffing the air, digging for earthworms. Weeks were spent in a wetsuit, floating down rivers and trying to experience the world as an otter. Or he sleeps in his back garden and then prowls the street at night, foraging in the bins and looking for London’s East End as a fox sees it.
This is often very entertaining to read about, one of my favourite bits being the chapter on red deer, when he gets his friend to release the bloodhounds on him so he can understand what it is to be hunted. But these experiments in living are not a gimmick, and not the point of the book. Foster’s serious about what he’s attempting, which is “biology in the real, growling, aching, joyous world.”
Too much writing about nature is either “humans striding colonially around, describing what they see from six feet above the ground”, or it anthropomorphises its subjects. Foster’s writing is deliberately different, incarnational, a kind of ‘literary shamanism’ as he puts it. It’s playful but highly informed – Foster is a vet as well as a writer, traveler and lawyer. It’s both scientific and spiritual. It’s dirty and floundering and knowingly inadequate, but profound, magical, and genuinely extraordinary.
It helps that Foster is a great writer, because much of what he is doing bumps against the limits of language. It helps that he involves his many children, which bursts any academic pretensions. His fearlessness, both with his own body and with his writing, gets him a long way. And perhaps most of all, the book succeeds against the odds because of a humility about what it can achieve – Foster is attempting to describe something that is inherently unknowable, grasping for an inhuman knowledge.
In short, this is a book that opens up the natural world in imaginative new ways, and by proxy, tells us all sorts of things about what it is to be human. That’s important work in a society that is so disconnected from nature, so caught up in our human constructions. Being a Beast is my favourite book of 2016 so far, and it is out now from Profile Books.