We think of wilderness as an absence of sound, movement and event. We rent our rural cottages ‘for a bit of peace and quiet.’ That shows how switched off we are. A country walk should be a deafening, threatening, frantic, exhausting cacophony.
If today’s shorn, burned, poisoned apology for wilderness should do that to us, just think what the real wild, if it still existed, would do. It’d be like taking an industrial cocktail of speed, heroin and LSD and dancing through a club that’s playing the Mozart Requiem to the beat of the Grateful Dead, expecting every moment to have your belly unzipped by a cave bear.
All humans are Sheherazades: we die each morning if we don’t have a good story to tell, and the good ones are all old.
Up for a bit of time travel? No, no, no, not in the sci-fi sense of physically transporting to another era. But in the mostly imaginary sense of picturing oneself in a prior age. Well, maybe more than just picturing, maybe picturing with the addition of some visceral experience. Charles Foster has written about what life is like for otters, badgers, foxes, deer and swifts, by living like them for a time. He wrote about those experiences in his book, Being a Beast. He wonders, here, how experiencing life as a Paleolithic and a Neolithic person can inform our current understanding of ourselves.
I thought that, if I knew where I came from, that might shed some light on what I am…It’s a prolonged thought experiment and non-thought experiment, set in woods, waves, moorlands, schools, abattoirs, wattle-and-daub huts, hospitals, rivers, cemeteries, caves, farms, kitchens, the bodies of crows, museums, breaches, laboratories, medieval dining halls, Basque eating houses, fox-hunts, temples, deserted Middle Eastern cities and shaman’s caravans.
Charles Foster – image from Oxford University
His journey begins with (and he spends the largest portion of the book on) the Upper Paleolithic (U-P) era, aka the Late Stone Age, from 50,000 to 12,000 years ago, when we became, behaviorally, modern humans. Foster is quite a fan of the period, seeing it as some sort of romantic heyday for humanity, one in which we were more fully attuned with the environments in which we lived, able to use our senses to their capacity, instead of getting by with the vastly circumscribed functionality we have today.
Interested in the birth of human consciousness, he puts himself, and his 12 yo son, Tom, not only into the mindset of late Paleolithic humans, but into their lives. He and Tom live wild in Derbyshire, doing their best to ignore the sounds of passing traffic, while living on roadkill (well, I guess they do not entirely ignore traffic) and the bounty of the woods. They deal with hunger, the need for shelter, and work on becoming attuned to their new old world.
We’re not making the wood into our image: projecting ourselves onto it. It’s making us. If we let it.
In one stretch Foster fasts for eight days, which helps bring on a hallucinatory state (intentionally). Shamanism is a major cultural element in the U-P portrait he paints. It is clearly not his first trip. He recalls an out-of-body experience he had while in hospital, the sort where one is looking down from the ceiling at one’s physical body, seeing this as of a cloth with a broader capacity for human experience. He relates this also to the cave paintings of the era, seeing them, possibly, as the end-product of shamanic tripping. This section of the book transported me back to the 1960s and the probably apocryphal books of Carlos Castaneda.
Social grooming was important to ancestors of our species. But, with our enlarged brains able to handle, maybe, a community of 150 people, grooming became too cost-intensive.
To maintain a group that size strictly by grooming, we’d have to groom for about 43% percent of our time, which would be deadly. Something else had to make up for the shortfall, and other things have. We have developed a number of other endorphin-releasing, bond-forming strategies that don’t involve touching [social distancing?]. They are…laughter, wordless singing/dancing, language and ritual/religion/story.
It sure gives the expression rubbed me the wrong way some added heft.
He has theories about religion, communication, and social organization that permeate this exploration. He posits, for example, that late Paleo man was able to communicate with a language unlike our own, a more full-body form of expression, maybe some long-lost form of charades. There is an ancient language, thought to have been used by Neanderthals, called HMMM, or holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and memetic communication. It is likely that some of this carried forward. And makes one wonder just how far back the roots go to contemporary languages that incorporate more rather than less musicality, more rather than less tonality, and more rather than less bodily support for spoken words.
He writes about a time when everything, not just people, were seen as having a soul, some inner self that exists separately, although living within a body, a tree, a hare, a blade of grass. This sort of worldview makes it a lot tougher to hunt for reasons that did not involve survival. And makes understandable rituals in many cultures in which forgiveness is begged when an animal is killed. This becomes much more of a thing when one feels in tune with one’s surroundings, an experience Foster reports as being quite real in his Derbyshire adventure. This tells him that Paleo man was better able to sense, to be aware of his surroundings than almost any modern human can.
Foster has a go at the Neolithic as well, trying to see what the shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture was like, and offers consideration of the longer-term impacts on humanity that emanated from that change. This is much less involved and involving, but does include some very interesting observations on how agriculture revolutionized the relationship people had with their environment.
…the first evidence of sedentary communities comes from around 11,000 years ago. We see the first evidence of domesticated plants and animals at about the same time. Yet, it is not for another 7,000 years that there are settled villages, relying on domesticated plants or fixed fields. For 7,000 years, that is, our own model of human life, which we like to assume would have been irresistibly attractive to the poor benighted caveman, was resisted or ignored, just as it is by more modern hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers only become like us at the end of a whip. Our life is a last resort for the creatures that we really are.
He notes that even when farming took root, many of those newly minted farmers continued living as hunter-gatherers for part of the year.
He finishes up with a glance at the contemporary. More of a screed really. He notes that phonetic writing severed the connection our languages have with the reality they seek to portray. Pre-phonetic languages tend to be more onomatopoeic, the sounds more closely reflecting the underlying reality. He sees our modern brains as functioning mostly as valves, channeling all available sensation through a narrow pipeline, while leaving behind an entire world of possible human experience that we are no longer equipped to handle. To that extent we all have super-powers, of potential awareness, anyway, that lie waiting for someone to open the right valve, presuming they have not been corroded into inutility by disuse. He tells of meeting a French woman in Thailand whose near-death experience left her passively able to disrupt electronic mechanisms. She could not, for example, use ATMs. They would always malfunction around her.
He takes a run at what is usually seen to indicate “modern” humanity.
I’ve come to wonder whether symbolism is all it’s cracked up to be, and in particular whether its use really is the great watershed separating us from everything else that had gone before.
He argues that trackers, for example, can abstract from natural clues the stories behind them, and those existed long before so-called “modern man.”
He calls in outside authorities from time to time to fill in gaps. These extra bits always add fascinating pieces of information. For example,
Later I wrote in panic to biologist David Haskell, an expert on birdsong, begging him to reassure me that music is ‘chronologically and neurologically prior to language.’ It surely is, he replied. ‘It seems that preceding both is bodily motion: the sound-controlling centers of the brain are derived from the same parts of the embryo as the limb motor system, so all vocal expression grows from the roots that might be called dance or, less loftily, shuffling about.
Foster is that most common of writers, a veterinarian and a lawyer. Wait, what? Sadly, there is no telling in here (it is present in his Wiki page, though) of how he managed to train for these seemingly unrelated careers. (I can certainly envision a scenario, though, in which we hear lawyer Foster proclaiming to the court, “My client could not possibly be guilty of this crime, your honor. The forensic evidence at the scene clearly shows that the act was committed by an American badger, while my client, as anyone can see, is a Eurasian badger.”) It certainly seems clear, though, from his diatribes against modernity, where his heart is. In the visceral, physical work of dealing with animals, which lends itself to the intellectual stimulation of a truer, and deeper connection with nature.
The first time (and one of the only times) I felt useful was shoveling cow shit in a Peak District farm when I was ten. It had a dignity that piano lessons, cub scouts, arithmetic and even amateur taxidermy did not. What I was detecting was that humans acquire their significance from relationship, that relationships with non-humans were vital and that clearing up someone’s dung is a good way of establishing relationships.
In that case, I am far more useful in the world than I ever dreamed.
Foster can be off-putting, particularly to those us with no love of hunting, opening as he does with I first ate a live mammal on a Scottish hill. (Well, as least it wasn’t haggis.) I can well imagine many readers slamming the book shut at that point and moving on to something else. Will this be a paean to a manly killing impulse? Thankfully, not really, although there are some uncomfortable moments re the hunting of living creatures.
Sometimes he puts things out that are at the very least questionable, and at the worst, silly. Our intuition is older, wiser and more reliable than our underused, atrophied senses. Really? Based on what data? So, making decisions by feelz alone is the way to go? Maybe I should swap my accountant for an inveterate gambler?
He sometimes betrays an unconscious unkindness in the cloak of humor:
The last thing I ate was a hedgehog. That was nine days ago. From the taste of them, hedgehogs must start decomposing even when they’re alive and in their prime. This one’s still down there somewhere, and my burps smell like a maggot farm. I regret it’s death under the wheels of a cattle truck far more than its parents or children possibly do.
I doubt it.
One stylistic element that permeates is seeing an imaginary Paleo man, X, and his son. Supposedly these might be Foster and Tom in an earlier era. It has some artistic appeal, but I did not think it added much overall.
All that said, the overall take here is that this is high-octane fuel for the brain, however valved-up ours may be. Foster raises many incredibly fascinating subjects from the origins of religion, language, our native capabilities to how global revolutions have molded us into the homo sap of the 21st century. This is a stunning wakeup call for any minds that might have drifted off into the intellectual somnolence of contemporary life. There are simply so many ideas bouncing off the walls in this book that one might fear that they could reach a critical mass and do some damage. It is worth the risk. If you care at all about understanding humanity, our place in the world, and how we got here, skipping Being a Human would be…well…inhuman. It is an absolute must-read.
We try to learn the liturgy: the way to do things properly; the way to avoid offending the fastidious, prescriptive and vengeful guardians of the place. Everything matters. We watch the rain fall on one leaf, trace the course of the water under a stone, and then we go back to the leaf and watch the next drop. We try to know the stamens with the visual resolution of a bumblebee and the snail slime with the nose of a bankvole and the leaf pennants on the tree masts with the cold eyes of kites.
Review posted – 9/17/21
Publication date – 8/31/21
I received an ARE of Being a Human from Metropolitan Books in return for a modern era review. Thanks, Maia.
By my count this is Foster’s 39th book
Foster’s bio on Wiki
Charles Foster (born 1962) is an English writer, traveller, veterinarian, taxidermist, barrister and philosopher. He is known for his books and articles on Natural History, travel (particularly in Africa and the Middle East), theology, law and medical ethics. He is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. He says of his own books: ‘Ultimately they are all presumptuous and unsuccessful attempts to answer the questions ‘who or what are we?’, and ‘what on earth are we doing here?’
—–The Guardian – Going underground: meet the man who lived as an animal – re Being a Beast by Simon Hattenston
—–New Books Network – Defined by Relationship by Howard Burton – audio – 1h 30m
Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Bear Grylls – a British adventurer – mentioned in Part 1 as an example of someone more interested in the technology of survival than the point of it (p 62 in my ARE)
—–Wiki on Yggdrasil – mentioned in Part 1 – humorously (p 85)
—–Wiki on the Upper Paleolithic
—–Dartmouth Department of Music – a review of a book positing that Neanderthals used musicality in their communications Review Feature – The Singing Neanderthals: the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen – Foster addresses this in this discussion of the origins of human language
—–Wiki on Carlos Castaneda
—–Discover Magazine – Paleomythic: How People Really Lived During the Stone Age By Marlene Zuk Like it says – an interesting read