Being A Beast: An Interview With Charles Foster, The Man Who Studied Badgers By Eating Worms
To discover what life is really like for wild animals, one person stood up and took things to the extreme.
Charles Foster has eaten earthworms. He’s slept in muddy Welsh holes by day, and foraged for food on all-fours by night. He’s someone who’s quite literally lived weeks of his life as a badger. Foster is also a vet, a barrister, and an academic at the University of Oxford. If there is a fine line between genius and madness, this man is definitely walking that line.
For his book ‘Being A Beast’, Foster boldly went where the majority of wildlife enthusiasts had never been before. Not content with simply observing animals in their natural habitats, he actually mimicked their behaviour and immersed himself within their environments - often for weeks at a time. Planet Earth II might be an astonishing look at the natural world, but you definitely won’t see Attenborough sniffing his way through bin-bags and eating old food off pavements like a hungry fox in it anytime soon.
What does it feel like to be another species, and what does the otherness do to us emotionally, physically, and mentally? Foster lived as a wild animal day-in day-out, in order to find out. He lived as a badger, he swam cold rivers as an otter, and was hunted as a red deer in the Scottish Highlands. He scavenged for food as an urban fox, and migrated with the common swift from Oxford to West Africa.
“When I was a kid growing up in a suburban house in Sheffield, there was a blackbird in my garden which looked at me. And I looked at it. And it plainly knew something about that back garden, that I didn't know, even though I thought I knew the garden pretty well," Foster says when I ask him what inspired him to take on this unusual project.
“I've wondered ever since what the landscapes of the England, Scotland, and Wales that I love so much look like to the animals that know it far more intimately than I do. So, this is a travel book really. I wanted to see these landscapes more as they really are, and the way to do that is inhabit them deeper and more intensely than humans normally do. Usually when we walk around, we walk around colonially six-feet above the landscapes we're trying to describe. We only see them, rather than using any of our other sensory modalities to describe them."
Throughout the book, and my chat with him, Foster is keen to point out that the project wasn’t about making a primitive step backwards. Instead, it was about reawakening himself and his senses. To increase his understanding of nature, Foster realised he needed to make a positive step and heighten his own awareness of the surrounding world in the same way wild animals do. When I push him on this idea, his answer reveals a man who’s clearly awed by animals but underwhelmed by human beings.
"There’s a lot you can learn about how to live as a human being, by trying to be a badger."
“We really are pathetically un-sensual creatures. We have at least five senses, and we normally only use one of them [at a time]. So we're normally only getting, at best, a fifth of the information provided by this extraordinarily colourful world that we live in. We could squeeze so much more out of life, if we just used the hardware and software that we've got. Most of it lies idle all of the time, and that's a tremendous shame."
When I first learnt the details of Charles Foster’s project. I immediately put myself in his shoes and imagined how on earth I would ever cope if put in similar situations. And, of course, I couldn’t help but wonder how my friends and family would respond to me if I confessed to them, like Foster does to the reader in the book’s early stages, that I’d been “urinating and defecating" in East End backyards while pretending to be a fox.
“My friends are my friends because they tolerate me. My wife is my wife because she tolerates me," Foster says. “Everyone I told was fairly sympathetic to the idea. I wasn't disinvited to dinner parties as a result of this. I wasn't ostracised, or anything like that."
“The point I wanted to make with it all is that there's nothing very unusual about this project, based on how most of humans in history have lived their lives. When I was crawling on my hands and knees through Welsh woods, that’s something that every human hunter in every civilisation up until our own would have been doing for a large part of everyday."
“I wanted to demonstrate that by doing something like this that might seem outlandish, outrageous, eccentric, or insane as some people have put it; I'm actually doing something which is really pretty trite," Foster adds, underlining his personal view that there’s nothing unusual about his project in the grand scheme of things. When you consider that there’s a bit in the latter stages of the book where Foster takes off all his clothes and walks around Scottish woodland like a red deer, it’s quite a stretch for me to consider his behaviour “trite" even if I do recognise the point he’s trying to make.
Foster believes so much in the experience, and talks about it so intelligently, that he starts normalising the ‘Being A Beast’ project in my brain in a way that I hadn’t expected. I decide to ask Foster whether there was ever a moment when he felt the whole thing was just so ludicrous that he wanted to pack it all in and go home. Did he believe that the silliness detracted from the findings? Were the low-points worth it in the end, and was the juice worth the squeeze?
“Once you reawaken your senses, they never really go back to sleep again."
“There were lots of moments when I was cold, and hungry, and wet, and miserable, and I missed my family, and all the home comforts. But those low moments are the moments of real learning, they’re the moments where you’re taught the most about both your alliance and non-alliance with the species you’re studying. There were no points when I thought this project is so obviously ridiculous that I might as well give up. I had done sufficient justifications when setting out the basis for the project, before I’d started, to convince myself that it wasn’t just, excuse the phrase, a complete wild goose chase."
As well as putting a lot of focus on the reawakening of his senses, Foster’s book also looks at society’s relationship with animals and its inability to empathise with them because of the distinct differences that set them apart from humans. It’s obvious from my brief time talking to him that the ‘beast’ experience has not only fundamentally changed the way Foster absorbs the world but also the way he connects to other living things. When you consider he used to hunt deer and wildfowl while wearing tweed, wrote monthly columns for The Shooting Times and bought his daughter a shotgun for her tenth birthday, this shift towards empathy feels even more significant.
“Once you reawaken your senses, they never really go back to sleep again. If you get used to functioning on five cylinders rather than one, and realise how much fun that is, you are unlikely to want to go back to using just the one. As with the sensory experience, so it goes for empathy. We often behave to non-human creatures in the environment within which they live with a lack of empathy which if we showed to human beings would be frankly psychopathic. Many of our environmental policies are frankly psychopathic. Our attitude towards the eating of meat is so casual, as to be bordering on the psychopathic," Foster tells me.
“The lessons which I learned by doing these rather stranger things haven't left me and I have become, as a result, a much more passionate campaigner for environmental causes and gained a greater understanding of our animal cousins."
"Many of our environmental policies are frankly psychopathic."
With Foster revealing to me that he’s got a newfound empathy for animals nestled neatly in his pocket, the big question for some will be whether Foster has walked the walked and made the leap to veganism or vegetarianism. Those hoping he might have ripped up the style guide of the University of Oxford academic by covering his entire body with militant vegan tattoos, or simply cut out meat from his diet, might be left disappointed.
“No, no. I am neither of those things [vegan or vegetarian]. We eat meat on special occasions, and I enjoy it very much when I do. I’m not urging other people to become vegan or vegetarian. All that I’m urging people to do is to eat meat, if they’re going to eat it, in a more reflective way than they normally do. I think eating meat is a morally seriously act. We are killing creatures whose ancestors were ours, not so long ago," he says.
“When you bite into your burger, it is an act of near cannibalism. I'm not suggesting you shouldn't bite into your burger. All I'm suggesting you do is do a bit more philosophical work before you do. Be a bit more reflective before you do. Justify that act to yourself a little harder than you'd normally try to do."
Speaking of food, one of the book’s biggest talking points is Foster’s attempts to sustain himself on a diet of worms while living as a badger. Maybe he’s just been asked about it one too many times, but I sense that he’s somewhat bored of talking about worms. Nevertheless, I was morbidly fascinated by this part of the book and wanted him to open up on the subject a bit more. Just what exactly does a worm taste like?
“I don’t think this tells you anything except what adjectives I’ve accumulated in order to tell you what worms taste like. It doesn’t tell you anything about a badger’s life but, in answer to your question, worms taste unsurprisingly of the earth in which they live. If the earth is leathery and tastes of saddles, the worms are leathery and taste of saddles. The slime on their outsides seem to change with the seasons in a way that makes them taste differently to their bodies. They’re gritty. Most of the time, they don’t taste of very much and you only get a very diluted flavour of the earth. I don’t recommend them."
Flipping Foster’s experiment completely on its head, I was curious to know what he thought a badger would make of us if roles were reversed and it could live as a human for weeks on end. His response underlines my impression that this is someone, rightly or wrongly, upset and angered by the very worst aspects of humanity.
“I think a badger would be absolutely appalled by the wanton waste, and destructiveness, and commotion, and vanity of our lives. And would be quite desperate to get back to its own wood. It would be back on the train to that Welsh woodland as quickly as it could," he tells me.
Before our time talking to each other comes to an end, I throw Foster a curveball. I ask him if he feels the growing divides in society are making it more difficult to embrace ideas and opinions from different perspectives. And whether he believes we’d all be better off stepping outside our own echo chambers from time to time, in order to see things the way others see them. In the year of President-elect Donald Trump, Brexit and the appalling mistreatment of Syrian refugees, a man who lived as a badger for a bit might just have got to the bottom of it.
“We are increasingly unable to see not only the non-human world, but the human world as well. We [as a species] are terrifically racist, and xenophobic. We hate anything other than ourselves. We’re all guilty of a corrosive narcissism, generated from fear. It may be my exotic attempts to relate to non-human species are a way of jerking us out of our own xenophobia, making us realise that there are other perspectives on the world other than our own. These experiences are not only valuable, but hugely life enhancing. There’s a lot you can learn about how to live as a human being, by trying to be a badger."