My recent reading habits have tracked my increased interest in nature and outdoors adventures. It seems like I’ve read a book about evolution, hiking memoirs, or some other aspect of nature every month. After reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert my interest in fauna was buzzing, so I picked up Charles Foster’s latest book Becoming A Beast. I couldn’t help but be excited about a book that billed itself as “unbeatable wilderness porn.” Unfortunately I quickly became lost in the proverbial woods.
In an almost defensive way the author sets the boundaries and lays the course of Becoming a Beast in the introduction. He wants to know what it is like to be a wild thing. Not just a human more in tune with nature, but an animal. I think this is certainly an idea that appeals to most people. As children we played at and fantasized about being an animal and as adults we can’t help but wonder what our pets are thinking, smelling, tasting, or hearing. There are many books that attempt to offer us a glimpse of the lives of animals through biological study and observation. Foster thinks that sort of nature writing is marred by anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. He says “Most nature writing has generally been about humans striding colonially around, describing what they see from six feet above the ground or about humans pretending that animals wear clothes.”
Charles believes, and claims many shamans and evolutionary biologists do as well, that “species boundaries are, if not illusory, certainly vague and sometimes porous.” He hopes to cross those boundaries or to “go as close to the frontier as possible and peer over it.” The two areas where he intends to “peer over” are physiology and environment. He makes case case that physiologically there is nearly no difference between humans and animals because we basically have all the same sense receptors or, if not, can safely approximate them. I wasn’t so convinced. I think that the consciousness, which experiences the physiology, can’t be know. How can one say they know how a fox specifically experiences pain when based simply on the fact that foxes and humans both have pain receptors?
The differences in environment seem to be the big variable Foster intends to manipulate. He intends to move, eat, and live exactly as the animals he is researching. So if the animal only eats worms, the author will only eat worms. If the animal crawls on all fours and sleeps in a burrow, the author will crawl on all fours and sleep in a burrow. If the animals poops in the woods – well, you get the idea.
The animals Foster chooses relate loosely to the four ancient elements of the world. The red deer for earth, the urban fox for fire, the otter for water, the common swift for air. He also spends a chapter on the badger as a sort of introduction to his methodology. You’re probably wondering how the author will live like a common swift who spends the majority of it’s life in the air. I can’t answer your question. I found the premise of the experiment dubious from the start, but after reading the chapter on the badger I couldn’t continue.
In addition to the absurdity of his approach to the endeavor, the author’s writing style jumps and flits from thought to thought like a dying bird. Often he fails to circle back around and complete his thoughts. It almost felt like the drug induced madness and discontinuity of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
While I found many individual lines funny and witty, such as “Wet suits are condoms that prevent your imagination from being fertilized by mountain rivers,” others were a synesthesiatic nightmare. Here the author is describing the emotions of badgers with a certainty that only a madman could have.
It would be odd beyond belief if natural selection had conferred on us alone the emotional corollaries of the ways our worlds are.
But this is not a mandate for anthropomorphism. To say that something is comparable is not to say that it’s the same. That is perhaps particularly the case for fear. The color of my fear is not recognizably the same as even the color of fear of other humans.
Although the color of badger fear is that shrill, strident, unforgettable blue, it is not the predominant color of their world. It may be a penumbra around the edges of their tumbling, their lust, their hunger, as the spiky gray knowledge of my own eventual annihilation is around mine.
Despite the interesting strangeness of the premise and perhaps one of the most graphic and disgusting descriptions of worm eating ever, I quit just short of a hundred pages in. It just didn’t seem any more useful or insightful than the imaginative ramblings of a child.