First sentence in author Charles Foster’s Prologue: “I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing.”
Unfortunately, if that is the goal this book fails at almost every level. It offers few useful insight into how animals “think” or whether or whether or not (or how) humans can come to any kind of realistic understanding of what it is like to be an animal in the wild.
The basic premise seems to come from the wife of one of Foster’s friends. She is a (good) witch and apparently spends part of her time as an animal (transitioning back and forth with the help of hallucinogenics). According to Foster (and the witch) prehistoric shamans spent a lot of their time as animals so that the whole idea of becoming an animal is possible and maybe even easy if one knows how.
Foster starts with a badger, an animal that lives underground and subsists mostly on earthworms. Like all wild badgers he rents a backhoe and digs a trench, carving out his underground hole with a shovel. He eats a few worms but has homemade lasagna delivered by a friend. Some deliveries include chorizo and updates on world news. Apparently badgers follow the news avidly and what badger doesn’t like pork sausage? Foster’s justification for the catered diet is that if a badger came upon a tray of lasagna (or a piece of chorizo) it would certainly eat it, so lasagna is OK if someone happens to leave some along the trail to his burrow. Deep questions are pondered without resolution: do badgers use adjectives? (p. 54). Maybe. Maybe not. The badger experiment fails.
So does the deer experiment. After stalking and shooting a few and imagining what it is like to be chased down by dogs have a bullet enter your body with fatal consequences, Foster decides he can’t become a deer because he is a predator and deer are prey. No common ground there. Can’t become an otter because they live in the river and are most naturally active at night. Foster tries but eventually retreats (in his wet suit) to the Staghunters’ Inn for several pints and some games of pool. Can’t become a Swift because they fly and never land on the ground their entire life. Foster can’t fly. Can’t become an urban fox because most of them are run over by cars within their first two years. Too dangerous to emulate plus the local constabulary is concerned about him, having not bathed or changed clothes in weeks, hiding in the shrubs at night and spying on things passing by. Like people, for example. Etc, etc, etc.
The writing? Extravagantly over the top. Here is an actual sentence from p. 141 (Foster is in a pub eyeballing some women and listening in on their conversation): “And so it went on: bums and then breasts tingled; shapeless pants were mockingly electrified; the fend shui of mantelpiece junk from Benidorm was evaluated. It cackled into the night as I bought narcotic beer I hadn’t thought I’d need, and tried to knuckle down to Greenmantle.” A lot of writing in the book is like this and even if you enjoy reading it the best that can be said is that the quality of the writing far exceeds the quality of the content. And don’t get me started on his metaphors. Even Foster knows they are bad, quoting his friend Burt; “I used to like metaphors until I met you.” (p.64)
If there are any insights to be had (and here I am trying to say something nice because right now I am feeling real bad for the Brits over the Brexit thing) I would say that Foster exposes us to a deeper understanding of smells in the wild, especially the smells of plants. One example: pp. 49-50 which combines some good writing with some good insights into the subtlety of smells and their importance to animals. There, I feel better having said something nice. (But for the most part the book stinks as bad as the animal poop he obsesses over.)
If you buy this book, skip the content and select something to read from the Bibliography. If you haven’t purchased this book yet I would recommend as an alternative Frans de Waal’s latest book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016), a wonderfully rich exploration of the Umwelt of a variety of insects, mammals and birds. Or just spend some time outdoors watching whatever wildlife you can find (birds in the daytime, feral cats at night, domestic dogs in the park at any hour). If you do this for a while you will have a better understanding of animal behavior than you get from Foster’s book. Plus you will have saved 20 buck$.