Friday, October 14, 2016

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide (Charles Foster)

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide
Charles Foster
Metropolitan Books
Nonfiction, Nature
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Through the ages, many people have speculated on the minds and lives of beasts, using them to teach lessons or tell stories. In more recent years, science has begun examining how animals experience their worlds through sensory arrays that often differ wildly from our own. But all those fables, children's stories, and dry reports can't answer the question many of us have wondered: what is it really like to actually be an animal? Author Charles Foster turns a lifetime of fascination into a series of attempts to cross the species divide by living, as best he can, as a badger, an otter, a London city fox, a red deer, and a swift. He digs a burrow and feeds on live earthworms. He learns to "see" in the darkness of a Scottish riverbed. He trains his nose to sift scents on multiple layers. He follows one of the world's great migrations, from Oxford to the Congo, while learning the eddies and drifts of air "rivers". Along the way, he discovers just how limited human lives and minds have become - and just what our potential is when we choose to reconnect and learn from our elders in furred and feathered coats.

REVIEW: The author of this book was a recipient of a 2016 Ig Nobel award, the strange-science counterpart to the more famous Nobels, designed to recognize scientific studies that, to paraphrase their official statement, first make you laugh and then make you think. The idea of stripping naked and crawling around in the woods (with his son, no less - Foster's children accompany him on more than one experiment, in ways that make me suspect England has far fewer overbearing child protection laws than America) trying to be a badger, or nosing through rubbish in the city like a fox, seems patently ridiculous on the surface. But by doing what most scientists wouldn't consider, actually putting himself in an animal's world (or as close as he could manage), Foster gains insights that elude the most imaginative writer or intensive lab study. He often finds existing English inadequate to describe what he experiences, trying his best to translate the way smells or touch or air patterns can create a world more immediate and relevant than mere vision. However, Foster can't help injecting himself into his own experiments, and more than once he prattles on about himself more than the animal he's trying to "be" - the human unwilling, or simply unable, to cede dominance to another species. He acknowledges this flaw, more than once, but admitting pretentiousness doesn't negate pretentiousness, and his philosophical speculations only served to weaken his actual, tangible experiences. I sometimes found myself skimming, trying to get back to the interesting parts and beyond the self-absorbed babble. Foster's success in drawing me into animal lives, or his experiences of animal lives, varies considerably. His attempts at "being" a red deer, in a chapter that's more about hunting red deer and how humans are programmed to be more wolflike (here, Foster's own anthropomorphic ideas of animals show loud and clear, despite his efforts to expunge such symbolic projection elsewhere) than the deer themselves, is the weakest. The final chapter on the swift is the strongest, likely because he admits a certain level of intrinsic defeat by this point; it's more of an attempt to be kin to the birds, rather than "be" the birds themselves, which isn't so prone to stumbling over his own preconceptions and attempts at sensory free-form poetry in making human language dance to the rhythm of an animal's drum. Taken all together, Foster's work is an admirable, if not always successful, attempt to step beyond the limits of our species - particularly the limits we've chosen to create for ourselves, rather than those created by biology.

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Animal Wise (Virginia Morell) - My Review
Never Cry Wolf (Farley Mowatt) - My Review

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