Friday, October 14, 2016

In Touch with the Other


Being a Beast caught my eye in the "New Nonfiction" section of the library, so when I heard the author interviewed on the radio, I perked right up and grabbed it as soon as I could, looked forward to reading it for a few days, and then dove right in.

It's a frightfully interesting assembled chronicle of the author's time spent trying to know certain animals better by immersing himself in their worlds. Specifically, he focuses on Badger (Earth), Otter (Water), Fox (Fire), Red Deer (Earth again), and Swift (Air) for his explorations.  And by "immersing" and "explorations" he means - among other things - living in an underground burrow (badger), swimming at night (otter), and sleeping during the day in strangers' back gardens (fox). He makes certain concessions to human limits - his badger sett is dug with the assistance of a backhoe, his red deer ramble employs a survival blanket at a critical moment, and so on - but I judge his attempts to enter the worlds of the beasts authentic enough. They are certainly more authentic, in many ways, than sitting warm indoors at home and observing radio collar tracking data, or even waiting quietly in a blind with parka, Thermos, camera, and clipboard.

That Foster is English and has that dry English humor certainly helps. So does the fact that he's a veterinarian and an Oxford professor, and holds a Ph.D. in medical law and ethics, not to mention being a husband and father. Perhaps it's these very human qualifications that land him on the charmingly eccentric end of the crazy spectrum. He readily admits he is "dismally suburban," preferring a whitewashed wall to the changing, interesting, sometimes seething burrow walls that dripped earthworms after the rains. This keeps him relatable, overall.

Even so, this book reads rather unevenly as part neuroscience text, part extreme travel memoir, and part environmental ethics discussion. Somehow seems to be a rather poor representation of his actual experiences, although he is absolutely masterful in describing smells and tastes, as over-the-top and evocative as the world's most articulate oenophile. Yet I'm at a loss to suggest what might better communicate those experiences. Foster himself admits that a significant portion of what he learned simply cannot be communicated in human language and that the book turned out to be much more about him that he wanted it to be. Even so, it's well worth reading for its thought-provoking approach to our relationship with animals.

As humans, seeing the world from our 6-feet-up perspective, filtering everything through our limited senses and relatively massive brains, we are hopelessly locked into ourselves, and so-called modern civilization has dulled our senses, because urban survival depends on an almost wholly unnatural set of skills. We have lost so much that it's nearly impossible to recover, even where we're fortunate enough to glimpse it now and again. Indeed, that may be the most important lesson of all.

One excerpt simply wasn't enough:

On life as a badger: We bustled and grunted and elbowed and pushed and pressed our noses into the ground. And even we smelled something: the citrusy piss of the voles in their runs within the grass; the distantly maritime tang of a slug trail, like a winter rock pool; the crushed laurel of a frog; the dustiness of a road; the sharp musk of a weasel; the blunter musk of an otter; and the fox, whose smell is red to the least synesthetic man alive.
 
On the human experience: To be is to see is to stride is to be able to choose. Even the panic of claustrophobia, which I've know when squeezing through a tight rock tunnel somewhere under Derbyshire, is really an unhappiness that one's options are limited.

On returning to civilization: The town blared, belched, leered, and cackled. There was more variegation on one leaf outside our sett than there was in the whole place. It fed itself by oriental air freight, and everyone was the same color. They talked about the adulteries of footballers and tone-deaf singers. The scent blocks were huge and crass; they lurched and swung and bellowed. I felt sick from shock and boredom and the heaving floors of deafening smell. . . .  And yet, as an example of a human settlement, this is one of the very best. I've always been happy here.

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