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The renowned biologist E.O. Wilson gave us the term “biophilia,” which he defined as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” As the world’s human population goes on expanding and walling itself up in cities, and the Sixth Extinction gathers steam, this urge is often expressed as an increasingly desperate kind of nostalgia. It drives support for conserving wild places many will never visit, as well as pastoral landscapes in which most will never work. Not to mention the proliferation of pretty floral, animal, and landscape images on our laptops and phones.
We know we’re missing something – we just don’t seem to have the time or inclination to get out there and look for it in the natural world. We turn instead to extravagant machine-made sound and light shows and other pseudo-experiences to replace the sensory and cognitive richness of the biological affiliations we’ve lost.
Charles Foster, the author of Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, is thus a something of an atavism. An English gadabout and veterinarian with Oxfordian university credentials, he has written a memoir of his gonzo-naturalist attempts not just to observe wild animals, but to live like them, to experience their world from the inside. He is not nostalgic by temperament, but his book is likely to be read by people who are. His personal antidote to our increasing disconnection from the biosphere is not one it would be likely – or beneficial, especially to the other animals – for many of us to follow.
He sets himself the task of aping – if you’ll excuse the expression – five creatures: badgers, otters, foxes, red deer, and swifts. All of them have a sort of talismanic status in what remains of Britain’s wild. He digs himself a badger den, and lives there (off and on) for weeks. He attempts to careen down rivers naked and eat live fish, like an otter. He forages for trash and naps in shrubs, like a London fox. He sets a staghound on himself on a moor (he is very quickly caught).
It’s a good read, for a while. Foster pushes his prose to zippy, zingy places to represent the difficulty of seeing, smelling, reacting and thinking like his chosen species. He admits his limitations and failures, emphatically, but he still thinks the experiment worth doing. He thinks he comes surprisingly close, a few times, to “being a beast.”
It’s hard not to sympathize with his attempt, desperate as it is, to make the case that we still share a world with these wild creatures and millions more and we are the better for it. And we’d be even better off (as the other animals indubitably would) if we recognized them as beings as worthy of admiration, respect and even love, as our own species.
Foster obviously has those feelings abundantly. He even takes to task the “colonialist” mentality of some other naturalists – the idea that the main reason to acquire knowledge of nature is to better control it. And yet in the end he reminds me of nothing so much as the intrepid anthropologists who seek out un-contacted tribes and try to live among them and – with all the sympathy in the world – “interpret” their lives to the civilized world. What is learned, and who benefits and how, remain ambiguous at best.
I did learn quite a lot about Charles Foster in this memoir. (I learned almost nothing about the shadowy wife who mutely plays housemaid for him and their six kids – whom he recruits as participants in his experiments in ways that are a little unsettling, like sharing the badger den in freezing weather and eating worms with him, or dropping their shit by rivers to mark their territory, like otters.) But for all his efforts, I’m not sure I learned much about his chosen animals that a good nature documentary (maybe with some fancy underground, underwater, and airborne camera work) couldn’t tell me. His attempts to give these animals interiority by imitating their physical behaviors from within his very different skin and form of consciousness left me skeptical.
It’s not that I don’t believe animals – or plants, for that matter – can think. I’m positive they can, in terms of any reasonable definition of thinking. It’s just that I don’t believe that I – or Charles Foster either – can know what their experience feels like to them.
As I was reading his book one afternoon on a windswept beach in California, I looked up and saw a little girl carefully making her way across the sand, her eyes on the ground. Even though I myself have been a little girl walking on the beach (although not that particular beach) and was just then sensing the same sunlight, sand and wind, I had no more idea what that child’s inner experience was than I have of what any given otter is experiencing when he or she slides off a riverbank, or a stag when he steps through a brushy grove. And Foster’s combination of constructed situations, highly torqued prose, and biochemistry factoids didn’t really get me there.
Mainly I was left thinking that there was a fundamental contradiction in this labor of intended respect: must humans try to be everywhere? To insert ourselves, physically or cognitively, into every aspect of life, including the inner experience of other animals? Can’t we express our respect for wild nature by letting it be?
Probably the answer to those questions is no – there is something relentlessly colonialist in human curiosity – but it seems that our encounters could at least be marked by more deference. In some cultures, after long periods of trial and error, they have been.
Being a Beast brought to mind Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, a striking counterpoint. Herzog is not what you’d call a “nature lover,” and a lot of his work seems aimed at de-romanticizing the idea that some civilized humans have of the world outside civilization. The subject of the film, if you haven’t seen it, is a lone young man who fell in love with Alaskan grizzlies and decided to get as close to them as possible. He succeeded – for a while. But he met a horrible end.
I think Herzog’s perspective is that most humans are now irrevocably sundered from wild nature, and good riddance. But that isn’t the point I take. For me the most telling interview in the film is with a member of an Alaskan Native nation, who explains the norms he was raised with regarding grizzlies: Real respect meant giving them a wide berth. Not just because they were dangerous to humans but because they deserved to live their lives free of human interference. Their lives were full and complete without us. The land they ranged belonged to them first.
We have not even learned how to acknowledge, respect and co-exist with otherness within our own species. But hyper-identification isn’t the answer. Humility might be.
The other thing I learned about Foster from this book is that he identifies much more with predators than with prey animals. The red deer is the hardest animal for him to meld with, probably because he cops to having shot a number of them in his now-abandoned hunting days. He expands this lack of identification to all of humanity, averring that we are a top predator and therefore cannot really respect an animal whose existence is defined by the fact that it is a food source.
It seems a bit nasty to refer back to Grizzly Man in this context, or the child who was devoured by an alligator at Disney World recently. I’d rather say that, even leaving other predator species aside, most women and a large number of children have probably had the experience of feeling like prey at some point in their lives. Regardless of how Charles Foster feels, many of us can identify. I’d even venture that the identification as prey was part of the impetus behind the development of civilization – for what that’s worth. But we are also our own worst predators, so we have to straddle that paradox.
I don’t want to diss this book, or its author, entirely. He tells a good story, he raises a lot of good questions, his heart seems to be in the right place, and he’s done his homework. You should always get points for those things. I also give him big points for his admiration of the ideas of Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake is the rogue biologist who has been ruthlessly attacked by reductionists like Richard Dawkins for venturing to posit that the principles guiding the cosmos make it more like a living thing than a machine.
But in the end, I think I just prefer my naturalists old school: sitting quietly, walking carefully, and using their limited human minds humbly as they wait with infinite patience for the wild to reveal itself to them.
Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, is published by Henry Holt and Company.