British scholar and writer Foster delivers a spirited romp through human history and finds our time wanting in many ways.
Building on Being a Beast (2016), in which he looked at the world through the viewpoints of badgers, a fox, and other critters, Foster imagines a humdrum deep past in which not much happened until around the Stone Age, when some mysterious spark fired our imaginations. As he writes, “God is good and favours the Upper Palaeolithic,” and its inhabitants responded to that goodness by painting glorious works of art in hard-to-get-to places, placing their dead in carefully constructed graves, and building cultures. That age of metaphor and creation, of “self-creation and self-knowing,” came crashing down in the Neolithic, which brought us agriculture and urbanization. “In the Neolithic,” Foster laments, “we started to get boring and miserable,” controlled in all sorts of ways. Instead of moving through the land, knowing what to hunt and what to gather and paying close attention to our surroundings, we became machines of labor. The author offers a provocative, pleasing meditation on the different ways in which the two stages of human evolution made use of fire—one to create, one to destroy—and he cleverly links the Neolithic world of overcrowding, forced labor, taxation, epidemic disease, and other woes to our time: “Continue synergistically for 12,000 years or so, and you have us.” This is a magpie book full of intriguing anthropological sketches. On one page, Foster notes that a circular house “is an intrinsically democratic space,” and on another, that the Romans were more interested in nature than were the Greeks. Throughout, the author makes connections between minds past and present with the “more-than-human world.” It’s a book that fits neatly into the growing library of modern British natural history writing, alongside the best of Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, and Roger Deakin.
A splendid assessment of the many ways there are to be a person, for good and ill.