Title: Being a Beast (2016)
Author: Charles Foster
Genres: Non-fiction, Animals, Environment, Nature, Science, Philosophy, Autobiography and Memoir
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
Release Date: 28th January 2016
Reviewed by: David
“How can we ever be sure that we really know the other? To test the limits of our ability to inhabit lives that are not our own, Charles Foster set out to know the ultimate other: the non-humans, the beasts. And to do that, he tried to be like them, choosing a badger, an otter, a fox, a deer, and a swift. He lived alongside badgers for weeks, sleeping in a sett in a Welsh hillside and eating earthworms, learning to sense the landscape through his nose rather than his eyes. He caught fish in his teeth while swimming like an otter; rooted through London garbage cans as an urban fox; was hunted by bloodhounds as a red deer, nearly dying in the snow. And he followed the swifts on their migration route over the Strait of Gibraltar, discovering him to be strangely connected to the birds.
A lyrical, intimate, and completely radical look at the life of animals—human and other—Being a Beast mingles neuroscience and psychology, nature writing and memoir to cross the boundaries separating the species. It is an extraordinary journey full of thrills and surprises, humour and joy. And, ultimately, it is an inquiry into the human experience in our world, carried out by exploring the full range of the life around us.”
This books documents the adventures of Charles Foster in his pursuit of an understanding of what it is to be truly wild. Truly “other”. Truly animal. To do so he attempts to live as they do, and put himself in their shoes (or paws, hoofs, and feet!).
This book confused me. That isn’t to say that I couldn’t understand it however. In fact this book was written incredibly clearly and in many respects was quite a pleasurable read in terms of pure wordsmanship. Foster, although a bit poetic and superfluous at times, is clearly a very talented writer. As I began the book I thought I was going to be in for a great read and I quickly read the introduction and was thinking to myself that this book would be at least 4 stars. Unfortunately that is pretty much when things began to go downhill.
For me the content of this book seemed incredibly vacuous at times. Not long into the first chapter I came to realise that what I was reading didn’t really appear to have any substance or value, and that I had gained nothing from it. Well, that’s not entirely true, I did deduce that Charles Foster appears to have a screw loose. Actually make that several. In this first chapter Foster attempts to describe what it is to be a badger, but I am left unconvinced. Instead I felt I was reading about a man rolling around on the ground and living in a hole, eating worms. This makes him no more a badger, than me a dolphin after having a bath. My scepticism continued throughout the book.
Sometimes Foster does seem to capture an interesting idea or sentiment about an animal that we can understand. I empathised with the foxes, which he described as mourning the death of a partner or relative and I suppose in these moments Foster has some success in capturing some of what it is to be an animal. However, for me to have any idea what it is like to be that animal I have to have already experienced that reality and retrospectively apply it to the animal. I can never hope to imagine what it is like to be a real fox and know what it is like to have a sense of smell a few thousand orders of sensitivity better than my own, no matter how many fly’s I eat or bin bags I raid. In fairness Foster admits that it is impossible to get past a human perspective repeatedly, but this to me begs the question: If it can’t be done why are you attempting and failing to do so, and still writing this book?
That is not to say that this book was all bad though. Particularly in the last chapter regarding swifts, when Foster takes a bit more of a back seat with his bizarre and at times disturbing attempts to try and be the animal, I found that there were some profound and interesting ideas. One such theme for example was the rather philosophical idea of the holistic nature of the world. He describes how a swift’s droppings can contain insects caught hundreds of miles away, which can decompose into the soil, be absorbed by plants, feed insects, which the swifts catch, and on ad infinitum. It really hits home how interlinked our planet is and conjures up many lines of discussion such as what happens when we die (do we too become part of this cycle of death and rebirth?) or what will happen to our planet if we cause the destruction of species such as the swift? Will the complex organism we call nature or mother Earth cease to function? (See Gaia hypothesis). At moments like this, I could happily have given a higher rating to this book. It is a shame they were too few and far between for my tastes.
Overall, I would have to say… well what can I say? The only thing I can say for sure is that this book was a bizarre and confusing affair with highs and lows. Often I wanted to put it down and never finish it, but I read on for some reason. Maybe it was the occasional poetic and philosophical insights I gained from it, I can’t be sure. I can’t hate this book, but I can’t like it either. A confusing read indeed!
I would tentatively recommend this book to anyone with an interest in spirituality, philosophy or nature as, although I did not like this book, I can imagine there are many who might enjoy it greatly!
Be sure to check it out Book Depository using my link here: Loisreadsbooks
Until next time,