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We piled into Burt’s Land Rover and went to the farm. I had thought of enlarging a disused sett, but I wasn’t confident of persuading the police that I wasn’t badger digging, and I didn’t like the idea of inhaling, along with the good earth of mid-Wales, a huge dose of TB bacilli. Burt’s JCB couldn’t give us a tunnel, just a deep trench scored into the hill, but it worked very well. We covered the roof with branches and bracken, and sealed it with earth. Burt chugged off down the valley for fishcakes and left us to it. We wriggled inside and tried to be a bit more authentic. We shaped the sett with our paws and a child’s beach spade. We tried to scuffle out the earth with our hind legs, but couldn’t, because the ceiling was authentically low. Tom could pull the bracken bedding in backwards, like a proper badger, but it was too much for me.

And we sneezed: constantly, mightily and unbadgerishly. Badgers seem to have some sort of muscular sphincter just before the entrance to the nostrils that they can close when they’re digging to stop the earth getting in. But we haven’t, and in that dry July, it was terrible. When they’re hunting, nose to the ground, badgers can’t use that merciful sphincter: they need to catch the scent, so they blast out the dust in heavy snorts. That, between sneezes, is what we did as we excavated. Tom was filling tissues with silica and blood for a week.

We used head torches. Badgers have more photoreceptive rods in their retinas than we do and a reflective layer in their eyes, called a tapetum, which makes them shine in car headlights; they squeeze more light from their world than we do. The near dark of our midday tunnel would have been dazzling to them.

We crawled down to the river, lapped from a pool where leeches waved at our lips, and crawled back to our chamber, where we fell asleep, side by side and head to toe, as all good badgers do. But Tom always moved in the night. “Feet in the face aren’t friendly,” he said.

We awoke to the rattling of a jay and the growling of an engine. It was Burt, with fish pie. “Bogus, I know, but I won’t tell anyone.” In fact, it wasn’t bogus at all. Badgers are the ultimate opportunistic omnivores. No badger would turn up its nose at fish pie. “I’ll tell you what, though,” he went on. “To compensate, I’ll come down later and set the dogs on you. And then we’ll go up to the road and I’ll try to run you over.”

We stumbled up the bank and hollowed out a nest in the bracken. Lying up outside the sett during the day isn’t unbadgerish, although it’s far from the rule. Badgers sometimes, just like we did, crawl into dense vegetation and lie there until dusk comes. We don’t know why; perhaps there’s tension at home and they can’t bear the thought of a day close to wretched, cantankerous, odious X. And sometimes, no doubt, they’ve been caught short a long way from home and don’t want to run the gauntlet of early-morning dog walkers.

Tom needed to sleep, so he did, curled foetally on bracken, his paws, earth-brown from digging, clasped under his chin. I, too, needed to sleep, so I didn’t. We had to change our rhythm to that of the badgers, which meant sleeping in the day, but, at least at first, I found the sett a threatening place. Was this an old fear of burial? A worm fell into my mouth. I gagged quietly and went back to sleep.

Those first few days taught me a lot. They taught me that, despite my shaggy, anarchic pretensions, I was dismally suburban: I preferred a whitewashed wall to the endless fascination of a real earth one. I preferred my ideas of badgers and the wild to real badgers and real wilderness. They were more obedient and less complex. And they didn’t broadcast my inadequacies so deafeningly.

But I learned to like that burrow.

    -EXCERPT: ‘A worm fell into my mouth. I gagged’: my life as a badger (Charles Foster, from Being a Beast)
British nature writing is fairly notorious for being populated by a series of characters, even eccentrics, whose detailed views of animals are actually personal explorations, intentional or not. Helen MacDonald, whose own H is for Hawk disguises something like a nervous breakdown as the story of raising a hawk, includes extensive background on T.H. White's Goshawk, in which he takes out his homosexual sado-masochism on the poor bird he's torturing/training, and Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Brightwater, which again subsumes the author's dysfunctional sexuality--he shared a bed with his mother until age eight--in the story about his love of otters. Charles Foster's delightfully demented tales of trying to live as a variety of wild animals are the product of a better-balanced mind, but, as the excerpt above suggests, he's hardly like your next door neighbor.

Indeed, the author's CV is quite humbling. Besides being an author and adventurer, he's a veterinarian, a medical ethicist, a professor, a lawyer and a judge. He is also a married father of five and a born-again Christian and, as much as I enjoyed him aping otters and red deer, I wonder if this wouldn't be a better book if he fronted it with what he was really trying to accomplish instead of tossing it off as an aside at the end. For, as much as he would like to be able to relate to the animals herein on their own terms, what comes through in the many interviews linked below is that his central concern is whether we can even know our fellow man on any substantial level. His desire to experience badgerness and foxness is kind of a test: "If I can establish a real relationship with a nonhuman animal, there are grounds for optimism with regard to relationships with humans. If I can bond with a swift, I may well be able to bond with my children." If as the old saying goes, we ought never judge a man until we've walked a mile in his shoes, Mr. Foster was starting out even more simply and trying not to judge a badger until he'd lived in its sett. This makes the man and his project even more interesting and we'd happily read more about his quest.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Charles Foster Links:

    -TWITTER ACCOUNT: @tweedpipe
    -WIKIPEDIA: Charles Foster
    -FACULTY PAGE: Charles Foster, Visiting Professor (Green Templeton College, Oxford)
    -BOOK SITE: Being a Beast (MacMillan)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Charles Foster (IMDB)
    -EXCERPT: ‘A worm fell into my mouth. I gagged’: my life as a badger (Charles Foster, from Being a Beast)
    -EXCERPT: from Being a Beast
    -EXCERPT: Becoming Real by Becoming a Beast
    -EXCERPT: from Being a Beast: Thoughts from an Experiment in Being Hunted Like a Deer ( Charles Foster, Jun 20, 2016, Outside)
    -ESSAY: Making the Biggest Story Small (Charles Foster, SUMMER 2019, Columbia Journalism Review)
    -ESSAY: Transformation as Homecoming (Charles Foster, June 28, 2019, The Clearing)
-REVIEW: of The Darkness Manifesto: How Light Pollution Threatens the Ancient Rhythms of Life By By Johan Eklöf (Translated from Swedish by Elizabeth DeNoma) (Charles Foster, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Ways to Go Beyond and Why They Work By Rupert Sheldrake (Charles Foster, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life By Peter Godfrey-Smith (Charles Foster, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator By Jason M Colby (Charles Foster, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe (Charles Foster, Common Knowledge)
    -ESSAY: I Went to the Woods Because I Wished to Live … Like a Badger?: Time spent acting as an animal taught me how to better make use of my senses. You can do it, too. (CHARLES FOSTER, OCT 03, 2016, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Ig Nobel prize winner: Why I lived like a badger, an otter, a deer and a swift: Since evolution and we have walked on two legs, humans have essentially missed out on 80 per cent of their senses by only using vision, says Charles Foster. So he lived as a variety of animals to attempts to experience the senses our four-legged friends have held on to (Charles Foster, 30 September 2016, Independent)
    -ESSAY: Veterinarians and the best interests of animals (Charles Foster, Kennedy Institute of Ethics: Bioethics Blog)
    -ESSAY: Does the English Law on Abortion Affront Human Dignity? (Charles Foster, 11 Nov 2016, New Bioethics)
    -PODCAST: Becoming a Badger (Ira Glass, 9/09/16, This American Life)
    -PODCAST: Charles Foster: How to be an animal (Amruta Slee, 29 Jun 2016, Late Night Live)
    -PODCAST: Paul Kingsnorth in conversation with Charles Foster: a podcast (The Clearing, August 19, 2019)
    -PODCAST: Naturalist Charles Foster says living like a badger helped him understand humans (CBC Radio, Jun 11, 2017, Writers & Company)
    -PODCAST: Being a Beast (DOUG FABRIZIO, APR 5, 2017, Radiowest: wildly curious)
    -PODCAST: Charles Foster: being a beast (Kim Hill, 14 May 2016, RNZ)
    -PODCAST: Living Like a Beast (Steve Paulson, September 03, 2016, To The Best of Our Knowledge)
    -PODCAST: Ep. 9 – Being Charles Foster being a beast (Yale Podcast Network, February 11, 2019)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Facing the Canon with Charles Foster (Facing the Canon, Feb 11, 2013)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Dr. Charles Foster Interview - "Being A Beast" (Jul 20, 201, WOCA The Source Radio)
    -TED TALK: Identity and authenticity in medical ethics (Charles Foster, Aug 29, 2018, TEDx Talks)
    -PODCAST: If a Badger Dreams (Out There, 9/07/17)
    -INTERVIEW: Going underground: meet the man who lived as an animal (Simon Hattenstone, 23 Jan 2016, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: Being A Beast: An Interview With Charles Foster, The Man Who Studied Badgers By Eating Worms (Jack Clayton, 17TH NOVEMBER 2016, Mpora)
    -INTERVIEW: Emotions in the Wild: A Conversation With Charles Foster (Thomas Dixon, May 13, 2016, History of Emotions Blog)
    -PROFILE: The barrister who became a badger: why did Charles Foster decide to live like an animal?: He ate earthworms as a badger, tore open binbags as an urban fox, and was hunted by a bloodhound as a deer. (ANOOSH CHAKELIAN, 3 MARCH 2016, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: What Is It Like to Be a Bat? (Thomas Nagel, (Oct 1974, Philosophical Review)
    -ESSAY: On Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ and battling the empathy gap. (Frank Brown Cloud, October 28, 2016)
    -AWARD: A man who lived like a badger, rats in pants, and other Ig Nobel winners (Lonnie Shekhtman, September 23, 2016, CS Monitor)
    -AWARD: Pretending to be a badger wins Oxford Don 10 TRILLION DOLLARS (Simon Sharwood, 23 SEP 2016, The Register)
    -ARCHIVES: Charles Foster (Literary Review)
    -ARCHIVES: Charles Foster (The Conversation)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast by Charles Foster (Patrick Barkham, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Elizabeth Kolbert, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Financial Times)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Vicki Constantine Croke, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Dwight Garner, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Laura Patten, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (The Reader)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Jeremy Williams, Earthbound Report)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Mark Rowlands, Times Literary Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Geographical)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Horatio Clare, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Damian Whitworth, The Sunday Times)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Sarah Darwin, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Elizabeth Bastos, Center for Humans & Nature)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Paul Cobley, New Scientist)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Craig Brown, Daily Mail)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Bluejay Blog)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Constance Grady, Vox)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Critical Angst)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Cherwell Archive)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Sean Wensley, Veterinary Record)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (The Review Broads)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Memoirs of a Traveling Ex-Linguist)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Alice Peck)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Mark Cocker, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Carolyn A. Ristau, science)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (J.B. MacKinnon, National Post)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Christopher Hart, Sunday Times)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (CHARLOTTE HEATHCOTE, Daily Express)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Brian Handwerk, SMITHSONIANMAG.COM)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Lourdes Orozco &Jen Parker-Starbuck, Performance Research)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Happinez)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Janice Lee, Entropy)
    -REVIEW: of Being a Beast (Michael Cook, Australasian Science)
    -REVIEW: of The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster (Last Word Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of BEING A HUMAN Adventures in 40,000 years of consciousness by Charles Foster (Anna Katharina Schaffner, TLS)

Book-related and General Links:

-REVIEW: of Rewild Yourself by Simon Barnes (PD Smith, The Guardian)