Horatio Clare

Burrowed wisdom

In his brilliant (and slightly bonkers) memoir Being a Beast, Foster explains how a deep understanding of wild animals has helped him thrive as a human being

Being a Beast is an impassioned and proselytising work of philosophy based on a spectacular approach to nature writing. That genre has given us riches on the language of landscape, the redemptive power of goshawks and the lives of fields, rooks, butterflies et al. We are wealthier for the movement, but in none of many beautiful books will you find a passage like this, from a writer in a wood at dusk thinking about badgers.

It would be pointless to reel off the adjectives and metaphors I used to describe to myself the scent of shepherd’s purse on the pillow or dog’s mercury in the wood. That might say something about me, but nothing about badgers or woods. Do badgers use adjectives? I expect they describe the world to themselves, and so they must. Adjectives are a corollary of fine shades of perception.

Farewell most nature writing:

Anyone who tries to evoke the mood of a natural place is a fraud; it is all — all — in the particular; the detail; the slash, the wrench, the individual panting breath.

Charles Foster, vet, barrister and philosopher, burrows into a Welsh hill to better understand badgers. He swims rivers as an otter, lies in a London yard as a fox, crawls through snow in imitation of a deer, and fails to fly as a swift.

No one will tell you more about badgerhood. I now know how earthworms taste (Picardy varieties musty; Somerset worms of leather and stout), or rather, Foster knows and makes metaphor of them, a step he believes beyond badgers. He is infuriated by metaphorical vision, ‘the main source of inauthenticity’, as any would be who had crawled blindfold to identify the distinct smells of different trees:

For a badger a soaring hornbeam has, on a hot day, the helical shape of the scent vortex that pulls dust up into the canopy and is, on a cool day, a low hump of tart lichen with an indistinct chimney.

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