My first reaction on reading a review of Charles Foster’s Being a Beast: Adventures across the Species Divide was amazed laughter. The idea of a middle-aged man attempting to live like a badger, sleeping all day in a tunnel underground, crawling through the woods on all fours at night in search of sustenance; or haunting the river’s depths, trying to catch fish in his teeth like an otter, struck me as courageous, yet absurd.
When I actually read Foster’s book, what I found was a deeply moral work: a frank and often funny account of the demanding physical and emotional attempts he made to enter the day-to-day reality of four other species: badger, otter, urban fox and red deer. His adventures, he explains, reflect the principle of “theory of mind” — the ability to think oneself into another person’s position; in his case, not just putting himself in someone else’s shoes, but into another creature’s hooves, pads or fins.
His expeditions involve definite discomfort, if not danger. He and his eight-year-old son Tom sneeze constantly as they dig their badger-like tunnel deep into a hillside in the Welsh Black Mountains, and Tom coughs up silica for several weeks thereafter. Badgers, Foster explains, have a sphincter-like muscle in front of their nostrils that prevents them from inhaling dirt as they dig. But he and Tom grow used to a diet of earthworms, which make up 85 percent of a badger’s diet, and come to feel at home in the enclosing, humming dark of their burrow. Crawling through the night-time wood, letting bluebells and bracken brush his face rather his boots, becomes Foster’s norm. Tom is far more successful than his father at following the badger’s scent landscape, even though it is Foster senior who did preparatory work, sniffing his children’s T-shirts to identify which was whose. “My versions of the senses – scent and hearing – were dismal compared with the badger’s,” he says. “I was handling the badger’s world with thick mittens.”
In his venture into otter-hood, Foster is badly bitten by an eel, but still manages to give sensuously precise attention to the river in which he is immersed: “Below a magpie’s nest, there is a column of absolute still. Move sideways an instant, and you’ll be spun sideways and down, faster than a magpie’s flight.”
Living like an urban fox in London’s Bow district, he dresses in dirty rags so that he can forage in garbage bins unnoticed. A police officer rebukes him, upon finding him asleep under a rhododendron on private property: “Get off home, sir, and get a life.” Foster’s response, “That’s exactly what I’m trying to get,” sums up the fraught nature of his mission. Of course, he will always fail to go as far into the animals’ worlds as he would wish. Nevertheless, his venturing brings him closer to their respective lives, and he shares much that he learns with his readers, such as the keen empathy foxes feel for one another’s suffering, their experience of bereavement, and the sounds of mourning they make.
Of the four animals whose worlds he tries to inhabit, Foster feels it is with the red deer he falls most grievously short; and this, despite his painstaking preparations: coating his long hair with mud; not cutting his toenails for several months so as to know what overgrown hooves feel like. He keeps a notebook of adjectives to describe the tastes of the bracken, nettles, sorrel and different moorland grasses he chews. Most tellingly, to better comprehend what it is to be prey, he has a friend’s bloodhound hunt him over many miles, recreating the terror of running for one’s life.
On Scotland’s Rannoch Moor, he wanders amongst the red deer and only just escapes freezing to death after a blizzard strikes, the whiteout obliterating the road that would lead him to shelter. He is fortunate to have with him a survival bag into which he crawls for protection and passes the night flexing his fingers and toes to keep the blood flowing. When dawn comes, he sees that he has been lying against a stone wall, with red deer asleep on his either side. Despite this closeness, he writes that he cannot conceive of the red deer as other than “victims,” and it is this characterization that prevents his imaginative entry into their species, with its “perpetual defining vulnerability.” I wonder if his attribution of victim-hood to the deer is rooted in the fact he once hunted these animals for sport on Rannoch Moor. Although Foster has given up hunting, it is possible the stain of the killing has stayed with him, infecting his vision of the red deer and their habitat.
Whatever the successes or failures of his cross-species expeditions, Foster’s book draws us seamlessly into the process of “theory of mind” and its related ability to appreciate the “interconnectedness of things.” “Shamanic transformation is the natural corollary of highly developed theory of mind,” Foster writes. In my novel, Hunting Piero, Agnes Vane speculates that her beloved Renaissance painter, Piero di Cosimo, may have been an instinctual shaman. Certainly, Piero’s portraits of a wild boar and a deer with human faces are evidence that he too, imaginatively and emotionally, crossed the species divide.