“I think there’s a mistake in this book,” Charles Foster admits early on in this conversation, “and it’s the book’s first line that says, ‘I want to know what it’s like to be a wild thing.’ That’s a mistake, of course, because whether I like it or not I am a wild thing.” Foster may cheekily dismiss his opening line as a “mistake,” but this initial curiosity is a perfect launching point for the witty, thoughtful, and charming journey that is Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide.
Five animals, each representing an element of the natural world, are chosen before Foster absconds to forests, moors, rivers, and urban parks around the United Kingdom. Two questions engrained in Foster “since childhood” guide his experiences to becoming a fox, red deer, otter, swift, and badger: “I wanted to know, ‘What does the world look like to these creatures that know it more intimately than we do?’” he says. “Secondly, is it possible to know anything about creatures other than myself?”
Throughout, this philosophical foundation intertwines with the animals’ physiologies and histories to elevate Foster’s experiences beyond mere musings. Whether he’s plunging into the otters’ cold, dark rivers, living in a badger sett for six weeks with his young son, Tom, or navigating through the “ghost” forests of red deer (red deer, even centuries after trees have been felled, still sense the trees’ presence and walk around where they once stood), Foster’s voracious mind never stops questioning what it means to be a beast, which, as he points out, really means to question the human experience.
Provocative and humorous, these adventures are a great deal of fun, both for Foster and the reader. But an essential part of the process was also the most complicated: becoming a beast means eschewing the visual way humans think. As a badger, in particular, Foster relied on scent and sound to construct the world around him. “I wanted to escape from cognitive tyranny, this process of always translating everything I sensed into visual imagery—the smell of a leaf into what I thought the leaf would look like,” he explains. “I had to go away and think in almost a synesthetic way.”
The result is a style of nature writing that feels wholly unique—Foster’s journey is not a spiritual awakening in the woods, it’s an attempted awakening to the woods, as an animal would experience it. The prose is profound and visceral, building intimate landscapes through aural and olfactory senses—describing earthworm samplings like a wine tasting is a particularly memorable example. For Foster, these grimier parts are vital. To understand the natural world, he writes, involves getting “dirty,” “fearful,” “cold,” and “seasick.” There is no shortcut to empathy.
While admitting we are “wild things,” even Foster still ponders how to fully embrace the idea of being wild. In the book’s epilogue, he humbly writes that through all the digging, scratching, sniffing, and swimming, he’s made “a bit of progress” toward better understanding. While his methods may seem extreme, the questions being asked remain vital to anyone seeking real connection to the world. “These creatures have been really important in shaping our experience as we grew up as humans,” he says. “If we don’t have a right relationship to them, we’re in danger, not only physically but psychologically, too,” he says. “We are tethered to the wild, whether we like it or not. I think the more consciously we acknowledge that relationship, the more nurturing the relationship becomes.”
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin.