A passionate naturalist explores what it’s really like to be an animal—by living like them
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 himself 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, humor 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.
"Nature writing has generally been about humans striding colonially around," writes Foster, a qualified veterinarian and research fellow at Oxford University. He instead opts for the four-legged approach, writing about nature through his experience mimicking the lifestyles of badgers, otters, foxes, red deer, and swifts. His book is an extraordinary account of his time spent traversing the forest near his home, digging into the earth to build an underground sett to live in as a badger (which also involved eating lots of earthworms), enlisting six children to help replicate the otter's use of dung to mark territory (and the otter's extraordinary metabolic rate), and substituting himself in lieu of a deer being hunted by hounds. In lesser hands this could come off as trite or patronizing, but Foster is quick to acknowledge his shortcomings and errors in perspective regarding his project, and he projects a healthy sense of humor; his account of encountering a police officer while attempting to recreate a fox's experience by sleeping next to a busy road is particularly rich. This approach, along with his willingness to address and avoid the temptation for anthropomorphism, makes his book interesting and informative.