Sunday, July 17, 2016

Being a Beast by Charles Foster

Synopsis From Dust Jacket:

How can we ever be sure that we really know the other? To test the limits of our ability to inhabit lives that are not our own, Charles Foster set out to know the ultimate other: the nonhumans, the beasts.  And to do that, he tried to be like them, choosing a badger, an otter, a fox, a deer, and a swift.  He lived alongside badgers for weeks, sleeping in a burrow on a Welsh hillside and eating earthworms, learning to sense the landscape through his nose rather than his eyes.  He tried to catch fish in his teeth while swimming like an otter, rooted through London garbage cans as an urban fox, and as a red deer he was hunted by bloodhounds and nearly died in the snow. Finally, he followed the swifts on their migration route over the Strait of Gibraltar, discovering himself to be strangely connected to the birds. 

Within the first few weeks of my Freshman year in college, I was approached to take part in what was described as an immersive overnight experience designed to give us an idea of what it was like to be homeless.  They took a handful of college Freshmen down to the "big" city of Wichita, KS, and had them spend the night among those who didn't get to sleep in a warm bed the following night.  Needless to say, I passed on the "learning" experience because I was homeless as a kid, albeit for less than a few months.  I knew what it was like to sleep in a car, and not know where your next meal was coming from.  In my eyes, this night out on the streets was nothing more than a way for middle-class kids, who never wanted for anything in their lives, to spout out false empathy for those they got to leave behind less than 12 hours later.  You can not get a real sense of what it's like to be homeless, when you know you are going back to three meals a day and a warm bed in less than 24 hours. Unless you are really feeling the fear and uncertainty they are feeling, you are just a poser, trying to make yourself look good.  Now had Charles Foster designed this experience, maybe the kids would have really learned something from it.  But in the end, even with months and months spent out in the "field", they still would have gone back to their comfy beds, and three meals a day.  And that's the crux of my issue with this book, no matter what I thought of the experiences Mr. Foster put himself through, the lessons he tried to teach himself, in the end, he's still human.  And no matter what, he still sees through human eyes and rationalizes everything through a human brain.

To give Mr. Foster his due, he is pretty upfront about the limitations he is facing in regards to the experiment he is mapping out.  The entire first chapter is an examination of the pitfalls and problems he is facing in his quest to not only live like a beast, but to think like them, to truly experience the world as they do.  What follows was a extraordinary account of a man, and at times other members of his family, as he submerged himself as much as possible in a world he was never going to fully understand.   He describes his approach and observations with a sense of humor that I found to be off putting at times, but all together charming at the same time.  Mr. Foster is a talented wordsmith, and it shows on every page as he describes the sensory input he experienced.  I swear I was able to taste earthworm in my mouth as he described his culinary experience with them.

I'm still not convinced that everything Mr. Foster put himself through allowed him to experience the world as the beasts do, but I'm not sure such a thing is really possible.  Unless there is a shaman out there that can put his/herself into an animal's body, and live as they do for a few years, I'm not sure any human ever will.  I do think that he has a new understanding of the particular beasts he chose to live like, and that's just as worthy of a goal.  I don't think we need to necessarily become a beast to understand them in some small way, or to appreciate the role they have on Earth.   Being a Beast has given me a greater appreciation for the natural world, even if I'm not going to experience in quite the same way as Mr. Foster did.

I would like to thank Emily with Henry Holt & Company for the opportunity to read and review this book.


bermudaonion said...

I was skeptical about this book because I couldn't figure out how you could actually live as an animal. It sounds like he did learn a lot, even if he doesn't know exactly how an animal feels. I'll have to reconsider this book.

Heidenkind said...

Kind of a strange idea for a memoir. I agree that he'll probably never *truly* know what it's like to be these beasties, but hey... Understanding is a worthwhile goal.

Melissa (Books and Things) said...

I was thinking the same thing. If he was seeking some empathy without declaring that it is true knowledge on what it is like to be a beast, then it is nothing more than being a poser. On another note, sorry you had to experience homelessness. :(