Being A Beast (Review)

Doctor Charles Foster has written a very peculiar book about animals.  It’s not another one of those touchy-feely, idealized bedtime story type of books. Foster’s account goes far beyond the anthropomorphized characters of popular culture.  The book Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide is a really wild, graphic account of the author’s attempts to live as five different creatures.

This book presents Foster’s efforts to duplicate the ways that five animals act and feel in the natural world–a badger, an otter, a fox, a red deer, and a swift. While he tries not to  engage in the trap of anthropomorphism, Foster also works to go beyond purely scientific jargon.  He physically enters the particular ecosystems of each animal.

This sensory immersion into the world of wild animals of Great Britain shocked me more than a few ways in the chapter about the badger.  Foster enters the wilds of the Black Mountains in Wales for this metamorphosis.  The most troubling part of this adventure, for me, is that his eight-year-old son, Tom, came along to share in the experience.  Father and son became the nocternal creatures that rely heavily on the sense of smell instead of sight.  They burrow through the ground and dig out a sett on one of the hills.

In the case of badgers, Foster not only evaluates his experience in the badger world, but also compares his observations about Tom’s ability to adapt and live in that environment. This chapter was as much about the creatures as it was about the reconnection to the environment.  The reader gains a more intimate knowledge of the interconnectedness of beast and place. There are also reflections about human interaction/intrusion on the place.

Even though I suspected Foster might describe the dietary requirements of badgers, I wasn’t quite ready for his detailed description of eating an earthworm.  Yes, Foster’s integration into the wild, went as far as experiencing the mouth feel and flavor of a worm. I’m glad I wasn’t drinking anything or snacking while reading that passage.beingabeast-03

The chapter about the badger, as well as those of the other animals, means much more than grossing out the reader. There is a deeper philosophical attempt at understanding the wild.  The account is an attempt to cross the species barrier between man and animal. It is much more than an idealized screed about how we should feel sympathy for the animal kingdom. This is real nitty-gritty stuff with plenty of bodily functions being descriibed.

If you’ve ever wondered what it is really like to be a wild animal, Being a Beast gives you the opportunity to vicariously experience that mindset through a human mind.  Because the subject matter is wild animals, the writing style is anything but tame. Very little is left to the imagination.

Behind these animalistic adventures is the author, himself.  What is his background and what might be his motivation to write such a book as this?  He has a varied scholastic background as a Fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford with a doctorate in medical law and ethics from Cambridge University. He is experienced as a veterinarian. Foster has written previously about law, philosophy, travel, and spiritual matters. He has a personal interest in acupuncture.beingabeast-02foster

Early in the book, the reader discovers Foster’s almost morbid childhood interest in animal remains, particularly blackbirds.  That obsession branched into his childhood practice of taxidermy.  Foster confesses that his past included game hunting expeditions from Britain to Africa. There are hints of his eccentric household that includes a patient wife and their six children.

In the end, Foster admits that the book has turned out to be less of an objective study of wild animals and more of a memoir about his personal “re-wilding”. We find an example of this when he admits that he feels more anthropomorphic about foxes than other animals.

All things considered, I recommend this book to anybody with an interest in animals, the environment, philosophy, or psychology.

{Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster; 256 pages; published June 21, 2016 by Metropolitan Books; ISBN: 978-1-62779-633-0 }

J 7-1-01The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Charles Foster. “It’s not true that extremity shows us our true colors. Those are seen in times of plenty. What matters–what makes us–is how we handle wealth.”

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
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