Sunday June 11, 2017

Naturalist Charles Foster says living like a badger helped him understand humans

In his latest book, Charles Foster chronicles his time spent inhabiting the environments of a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox and a swift.

In his latest book, Charles Foster chronicles his time spent inhabiting the environments of a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox and a swift.

Listen to Full Episode 51:51

Charles Foster's career has run the gamut from lawyer to veterinary surgeon, and from Oxford don to prolific writer — he's written or contributed to 35 books. A dedicated traveller and adventurer, he's run a 150 mile race in the Sahara and skied to the North Pole. Through all of this, one constant has been a passionate connection to nature. 

In his latest book, Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, Foster tries to inhabit the consciousness of a badger, an otter, an urban fox, a deer and a swift. Drawing on neuroscience and psychology, he hunts, scavenges and burrows his way into the animals' worlds, in the process overturning any conventional form of nature writing. Being a Beast won the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize in biology, an award that recognizes scientific achievements that make people laugh, and then think. 

Foster spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Oxford, England.

Seeing the world through non-human eyes

Once when I was a boy, a blackbird looked at me and I looked at it, and it plainly knew something about that little hedge-lined suburban garden that I didn't know. I thought I knew that garden intimately. I wanted to know what it knew, and the obsession with wanting to find out what's inside other heads has stayed with me. The obsession with wanting to know from a non-human's eye and nose and ear perspective what the natural world is like has also stayed with me. It began with a desire to explore other heads, and non-human heads seemed to me to be vertiginously exciting universes to explore.

Using our senses

We have at least five senses, and it's a great shame that we normally only use one of them, sight, and we use that very badly. We can use our sight a lot better than we think. We also have better noses than we think. It's a matter of paying attention to the information which is pouring in all the time. If we make decisions about situations or about human beings based on only 20 per cent of the available information, we're likely to get those situations and those people wrong. And that's what we do with the whole of the world. 

Seeking deeper human connections

I think the contents of the heads of all other creatures are inaccessible, including those of our wives, our best friends, our children. That inaccessibility makes me feel terribly lonely. Part of the reason for this quest was to convince myself that I wasn't perpetually alone, locked up in my own head. If I could convince myself of that in relation to a non-human animal, then perhaps I could have a meaningful conversation with my wife or my best friends.

Charles Foster's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Prelude and Yodel" composed by Simon Jeffes, performed by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.