My bookshelf is taking on a rather wild and shaggy aspect these days, not unrelated to the fact that I’ll soon be starting a course on nature writing. As a genre, nature writing almost always falls into two categories – the anthropomorphic and the anthropocentric. Charles Foster, who knows a lot about both, sums these activities up pithily: the latter, as “humans striding colonially around, describing what they see from six feet above the ground,” and the former, Beatrix Potterishly, as “humans pretending that animals wear clothes.” Foster is convinced there is a third way, and pursues that aim to extraordinary lengths in his hilarious, moving, deeply strange book, Being a Beast.
In order to see the world as an animal might see it – or, more accurately, as an animal might perceive it – you need to get down to their level. Foster lives for several weeks as a badger, in a wood in the Black Mountains of Wales, sampling earthworms and grubbing through the undergrowth navigating the wood with his nose on high alert. With his ten-year-old son, Tom. It’s an interesting experience, and not one that you might like to repeat.
A worm in the mouth for example heads for the gaps between your teeth: “it thrashes, whirling one end like a centrifuge around the middle of its body; it lashes your gums… If you open your mouth again it’ll be off, pressing its tail against the floor of your mouth like a sprinter pushing off from the blocks.” This is all very disgusting, as Foster concedes, but it doesn’t stop him from sampling worms from different places. In case you’re interested, worms from Picardy are “musty”, those from Chablis have “a long, mineral finish” and my local ones from the Somerset Levels “have a stolid, unfashionable taste of leather and stout.”
Foster enlists his friend Burt, who has a JCB, to dig out a hole for him and his son to hunker down in. Not least, he explains, because of his wife “who rightly expected any hole I dug to collapse in on Tom, which would have created lots of paperwork.”
Being a beast, you would think, would necessitate being naked. Animals don’t drape themselves in other animals’ skins, or worry about what they look like – darling, that’s so last season. But although Foster does spend a good deal of his time butt naked, it’s not so simple as that. Badgers have a thick outer coat of coarse hair and an inner one of finer hair to keep themselves warm: Foster has moleskins and tweed as a decent approximation. Likewise, otters: our beastly author spends hours lying in leechy waterways trying to catch fish with his teeth, wearing a wetsuit.
Foster is not interested in channeling his inner otter. For this hubristic and doomed attempt at what he calls “literary shamanism” he gets down on his hands and knees, where he discovers that “a lot more happens six inches and below than at six feet and above.” A bag of rubbish on a London street is a glowing feast for a fox; dirt spells home for a badger.
Foster’s failures are obvious: we’re all trapped in our own skins – but his attempts to go beyond the limits of our narrow sensorium takes us on a fabulous mind-expanding journey. As we burrow like badgers, slink otterishly, sniff the breeze like red deer, or see life through the vertical pupils of an urban fox or swirl in thermals like a swift on the wing, this deceptively slim book goes very deep.
He suggests that while animals have little use for metaphor, they certainly use adjectives, arguing convincingly, if not very scientifically, that “Their world isn’t just a huge, damp noun: a big blob of ‘is-ness’” and that “Adjectives are a corollary of fine shades of perception.” His book represents a small step that is a large leap in the emerging fields of ecolinguistics and biosemiotics, both of which, as academic disciplines, are knee-high to a grasshopper.
Foster is a literary Icarus, and he gets burnt: he tumbles and falls, over and over again, but in pushing the boundaries of our own worldview, he opens our eyes, ears, noses and tongues to strange new horizons. “Every organism,” he reminds us, “creates a different world in its brain. It lives in that world. We are surrounded by millions of different worlds.” And if that all sounds very Star Trekky, well, it’s supposed to. The parallel universes of our co-inhabitants of this green-blue planet are revealed as both tantalizingly close and impossibly distant.
For all the meticulously researched science, the fascinating natural history, the mind-blowing statistics, and the grubby and exhausting real-life experimentation, he ends the journey, as I ended it too, on a note of wonder. Being a Beast is a wonder-full book: read it.
First published in The Hindu Business Line supplement, 24.9.16