I had the pleasure of receiving a lecture
during my time at Schumacher College
from the wonderful Charles Foster.
Charles is Oxford don, philosopher and writer,
author of intriguing book Being a Beast.
I just finished reading the book and loved it!
As a child Charles was tantalised by a blackbird, wanting to know what the blackbird knew about the world. He wanted to get as close as he could to 'Being a Beast', and so began a wonderful experiment to see how far he could get.
He choose to 'become' British animals he liked and wanted to be near, charismatic animals that people would want to read about, and animals that his children liked! And so Charles became, for a short time, as much as possible, badger, otter, fox, red deer and swift.
Charles and his son Tom lived in a JCB-dug badger set in Wales, and beforehand did many exercises to heighten their sense of smell. He describes whole milliseconds where he was able to appreciate the smell of something before the mind conjured images of what made the smell, which showed it was working!
He describes otters as killing machines, and decides that he really doesn't really like them! We have damaged otters by killing 85% of their main source of diet: eels. So now they must travel further and fight (often to the death) over territory. His focus in this chapter was sound, as sound in water shrinks distance to give 'auditory claustrophobia'.
With the foxes, he got down low and dirty with them in central London. It made him realise that even London is a wild place, it occupies the same space as the great plains of Africa. But his most sensual time was with the Red Deer: Charles used to be a hunter, so the challenge was to change himself into a prey species.
Finally, the swifts, which hatch a few feet above Charles' study in Oxford every year. They fly from Oxford to the Congo and back up to four times without stopping: they sleep and eat on the wing. So perhaps it was most difficult to become this most ethereal of beasts. He tried climbing trees to get close to them, followed them to Africa, and despaired as nothing was working.
While Charles was sleeping in an African bush, he suddenly woke up, just 'knowing' that the swifts would arrive any moment. That moment made Charles realise more than any other that he was much closer than ever to truly becoming a beast: he is connected to them by that mysterious quality that gives one knowledge that's not been taught (Rupert Sheldrake's Morphic Resonance).
This all may seem far-fetched and fruitless, but the main message I got from this book was that Charles could these experiments because we are so close to the animals, we share the same essence of being. His delight at the many experiments, the ease with which his children flow into these situations (as they have not yet 'forgotten' as adults tend to do), and the fantastical language Charles uses make this an extremely fun book to get stuck in to.