In which an English author, tired of the high street, takes to the fens and burrows to learn how animals live.
What does an otter do? One imagines a life of lolling in a sparkling tidal pool, nibbling on salmon. Is there more to it? Indeed, writes Oxford ethicist and veterinarian Foster. For one thing, there’s a matter of negotiating rivers down to the sea, “Ruskin on acid; all hanging greenery; soft focus from the spray—it’s too much.” Clearly, this isn’t your grandmother’s Ring of Bright Water but instead a daringly imaginative project to see the world from the viewpoints of various animals that wouldn’t be out of place in The Wind in the Willows: badger, otter, swift, fox, red deer. Their world is fraught with danger, not least because of the too-insistent, too-impingent presence of our kind. The project is daring precisely because it courts the two sins of nature writing, anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, the latter describing the world as it appears to humans, “perhaps commercially shrewd,” Foster grumps, but “rather dull,” and the former depicting the animal world as being a mirror of the human. It is not: Foster, in inhabiting that world, attempts to get at its essential alien nature, whether routing through badger tunnels whose geography is determined by where the bones of badgers past and passed-away lie or racing against dogs in the guise of a vulpine: “Apart from swifts, foxes were the most obviously alive things I knew.” There’s not an ounce of sentimentality in any of it, but instead good science and hard-nosed thought. Furthermore, Foster has the gift of poetry, and he closes with a meditation on what knowing about the animal orders and the natural world can mean to humans: “If we live in a wood,” he writes, “we acquire the accents of the trees.”
A splendid, vivid contribution to the literature of nature.