Being a Beast – CHARLES FOSTER at the Border Sessions Festival 2019

Charles Foster speaks with a humble clarity and insight that is rare. In modulated tones that are frequently self-deprecating he explains to us that all his books are an attempt, in one way or another, to understand what sort of animal we are. In Being a Beast, Foster shares what he learnt after choosing to live like a badger and a fox, amongst other woodland creatures, for periods of time. Eating what they eat, sleeping where they sleep, in an effort he tells us, not to feel so alone in the world.   

In spite of his humour and modesty, it soon becomes apparent that one is in the presence of a formidable intellect when listening to Charles Foster. Oxford Don and barrister, Foster studied veterinary medicine and law and now works as both barrister and vet while supervising Oxford Law students. Foster admits that he has always been ‘an absolutely passionate, fanatical naturalist’. As a boy, he would skin, dissect and stuff road kill in the garden shed, in order to get closer to these creatures. ‘Animals were my Lego’ he tells us.

As a barrister, Foster is involved in high profile cases involving assisted suicide and consent to medical treatment. Indeed much of his research as an academic is concerned with questions of identity and authenticity. ‘I agonise about philosophical questions. Who am I and is it possible to really know another person properly?’ Part of the inspiration for this book came from a desire to know that there was something outside Charles Foster’s head, as he puts it. He explains that if he could have an idea about what a badger perceives, even just a fraction, then perhaps he could have a conversation with his wife.

So what is life as a badger or a fox like, really? Foster and his eight year old son, Thomas, headed to Wales where a farmer friend helped them dig a sett in the hillside for a 6 week stint living  as badgers. This included eating mostly worms, as this is what constitutes the bulk of the British badger’s diet. Foster is dismissive of those who ask him what it’s like to eat worms. ‘That was the least interesting aspect of my experiment’ he says. Being a badger was uncomfortable and boring at first, intensely so, he says. But then ‘you recalibrate your senses and attention span. It’s like meditation’. 

Foster also realised, that foxes inhabit the inner city of London much more intensely than he. They helped me to make London inhabitable and accessible, he tells us as he recalls his time spent foraging in bins and sleeping in gardens. The naturalist recalls one particularly intense moment in a backyard in East London when he came face-to-face with a fox that had pilfered a chicken wing from a nearby bin – ‘There was some sort of connection I can’t fully describe.’ Foxes he realised, relate to all of these places in very emotional ways.

This brings the writer on to the topic of emotions in animals. Foster describes it as ‘an amazing schizophrenia’ that exists amongst his colleagues who spend their working weeks as scientists in complete denial of the existence of emotions, as we know them, in animal species. They then get home to their dog, look into his eyes and ascribe all kinds of emotions to their beloved pets. He tells us that Darwin wrote ‘a fantastic book’ about the emotions of animals, 150 years ago. But for the past 130 years, they have been dismissed by large parts of the scientific community. Nevertheless he believes that scientists are ‘slowly coming out’ and this brokers the possibility of the sort of real engagement with the animal world that we haven’t had since shamanistic times.

‘Anthropomorphism is no longer such as dirty word.’ It has its roots in shamanism, which Foster describes as ‘the most basic human activity.’ He links it to the growth of the human consciousness, a process that began 45 000 years ago and admits that this is the focus of his next project. He wishes to understand what it was like ‘to not have consciousness and then suddenly have it’. Once a separate sense of self was established, symbolism exploded, story-telling began and meta-narratives in the form of myth came into being.

Charles Foster is clearly no ordinary Oxford Don or British barrister for that matter. He tells us that his colleagues at Oxford are all interested, ultimately, in answering the question, What makes human beings thrive? But also admits that ‘Oxford is incredibly bad at multidisciplinary working’. Crossing traditional boundaries is met with ‘an abiding suspicion’. This is one reason we get bad ethical and legal solutions to the problems of human existence, he states calmly. Foster however clearly has no such qualms. He boldly mixes biology, philosophy, shamanism and poetry. Added to this, he admits ‘a deep suspicion of abstraction’ which is perhaps what led him to this extraordinary project.  ‘It’s no good, if you want to understand the world, to sit in a study in Oxford and think about it.’ I couldn’t agree more.    Souwie Buis     14th June 2019