Dr Charles Foster is many creatures; a teacher of medical law, a qualified vet, a legal philosopher and a practising barrister. He is also a fox, a badger, a deer, an otter and a swift.
That’s right: for the last 15 years, Foster has spent extended periods of time living as an animal. He has lived in a sett, eaten out of bins, slept under bushes. Perhaps if he were poor, or lacked the eloquence honed by years at the bar, he might be considered mad; as it is, his recently released book on his experiences, Being a Beast, is receiving rapturous reviews.
I meet him in an attempt to understand what drives a respected Oxford tutor to spend weeks living in a hole, eating worms. He is warm and self-deprecating, and extraordinarily earnest. “I was concerned that none of my relationships were real, that I was perpetually at crossed purposes with all the worlds of people who I regarded as my best friends and my family,” he tells me.
“I wanted some sort of reassurance that it was possible to know the other, and one way of testing that is to see if it’s possible to have a relationship with a member of another species. If it’s possible to have a relationship with a member of another species then perhaps there are grounds to be assured that I know my wife or my children or my best friends.”
In its current form, this is a highly philosophical project building on his academic work on identity and human dignity. In a different sense, though, this is something Foster has been working on his entire life. I ask him when he started being an animal. “I think I started probably as soon as I emerged from the uterus. Children crawl around pretending to be lions and tigers; children go to bed every night with a cuddly teddy bear, a member of another species. We don’t think that’s odd; we think it’s human normality, so human children recognise this basic Darwinian fact of our relationship with other species. As soon as we grow up, we grow out of that knowledge, disastrously.”
By his own admission, Foster did grow up disastrously. There is a measure of regret in his voice as he describes his life before becoming a beast. After training as a vet and a lawyer, Foster emerged as “a proud, arrogant, swashbuckling, hunting barrister. I used to get the train north to Fort William every autumn to stalk in very nice lodges. Field sports were a big part of my life. Looking back on it I think that probably was – at a level which I didn’t acknowledge at the time – a quest for intimacy with the natural world. But it took a really perverted form. Do you really establish a relationship with something by going out and trying to kill it? That itself is a psychopathic state of mind.
“Since I was a child I’ve been a passionate naturalist; I’ve always marinated myself in the natural world and I’ve always at some level been aware that I needed it. But I never seriously countenanced the possibility of a two-way, of a reciprocal relationship with it, until I – as I rather histrionically put it in the book – put down my guns and took up my tofu.
“We’re not talking about a Damascus Road conversion here; we’re talking about a gradual evolution away from predatorhood towards – not victimhood, but towards acknowledging that an essential part of my self-description is ecological.”
For Foster, an important component of this exercise is revealing the animal within each of us. “The title of the book, Being a Beast, is deliberately ambiguous. It could and in most people’s eyes at first blush does say, ‘This is a project in which I go out and try to transform myself into a beast.’ But the better way of understanding it is something like, ‘Being a beast, I picked up a cup of espresso macchiato [we are talking over coffee] and drank it in a beastly sort of way.’
“So, I would like to think that the book is trite, that it is simply saying in a poetical and exploratory way what Darwin told us all 150 years ago. So the best possible reception for this book, as far as I’m concerned, will be for people to shrug and say, ‘Yeah, obviously. Tell us something new,’ and to acknowledge in themselves that this was so obvious as not to need saying.”
I sense a considerable level of concern over how the book is received. Foster’s is a story that is all too easy to sensationalise; a review of his book in The Guardian describes him simply as “the man who ate worms like a badger.” Foster wants to stress that it is about more than this. “It’s actually not very interesting to have a description of what worms taste like. If you want to know what worms taste like, the best way of doing it is to go into your back garden and eat some, rather than have Charles Foster tell you what they taste like. All that tells you really is what suite of adjectives Charles Foster has about his palate.” This is a project is about empathy, understanding and self-recognition, but I’m too curious not to ask about the practicalities of becoming a beast. A trained vet, Foster found out all there was to know about the physiology of the animals he was to imitate, but it was the simple steps that made the greatest difference. “One way of doing this is to unwind the few million years of evolution in which I have been a biped by simply dropping six feet to the ground. Six feet – a couple of million years. That physical act makes you necessarily a less visual animal, because there’s not so much to see down there, because there’s often grass up to and above your eye level.
“There are various ways of reconditioning your nose to make you a more olfactory animal, so I describe in the book how before I went into the woods I tried to rekindle my nose, so I would burn joss sticks of various sorts in different rooms of the house, blindfold myself and try to navigate myself around the house by the smell. I’d put different types of cheese in each corner of the room and after disorientating myself, try to orientate myself by reference to the cheese. And it is interesting how effective those things are. Human noses are actually surprisingly good.
“When I was being a badger, it was about eyelevel olfaction, trying to learn a scent landscape, learning how the tides of scent shift up and down the valley, learning how scent oozes from the ground as the sun hits it, learning how smell bounces like an echo off the walls of the valley, trying not to translate everything that I received through my nose into a visual metaphor. And that’s a really difficult exercise, because my tendency as a visual animal is to sniff something and then imagine to myself what it would look like, but again with practice you can say to yourself, ‘that is more the smell than it is the sight of it, or at least as much the smell as the sight of it,’ so you become a more sensorially holistic mammal.”
These last comments remind me of twentieth century philosopher Thomas Nagel’s seminal article, What is it like to be a bat? in which he famously argues that we cannot escape our subjective perspective; the mind of a bat is tantalisingly alien to us. Foster is resigned to this limitation, but optimistic about what we can achieve in spite of our human-ness. “I was always Charles Foster the agonised Oxford don crawling around in a wood – I wasn’t a badger. But I was an agonised Oxford don crawling around in a wood who recognised to a greater extent than he recognised before that it’s a mere 30 million years since I shared a common ancestor with a badger, which is nothing. And that sort of kinship is not only possible, but vital.”