“I have become The Man Who Eats Worms,” Charles Foster shrugs, sorrowfully. “It’s not really a very interesting subject. It doesn’t tell you anything about how badgers experience the world.”
This combination of self-deprecation and a quest for deeper purpose is what defines Foster, the 53-year-old barrister and Oxford medical tutor who decided to shed his professional human trappings and live like an animal.
It also defines the book he has written about his experiences, called Being a Beast – a wild blend of nature writing, memoir, philosophy and scientific study.
A copy sits on his dining room table, nestled among sheet music and exercise books. Foster lives in this treasure trove of a house near the centre of Oxford – bedecked with stuffed animals as well as children’s collages and paintings – with his wife Mary, who is a GP, and their four young children.
The beady eyes of fox heads peer at visitors who arrive in the hall. A glaring otter surveys the kitchen worktop. Across the room, a gull perches, suspended, beside Foster’s conservatory-cum-study, which has a view of a leafless tree. Everywhere you look is a jumble of earthy miscellany – boots and globes and veterinary magazines. It’s probably closer to being a wilderness than most suburban terraces.
As he clatters around making coffee, Foster looks momentarily devastated when I admit – as a lifelong Londoner – to not being particularly outdoorsy.
“We all live in the wild,” he says. “We are necessarily wild animals, even if we choose to wear clothes instead of skins.”
But Foster wanted to go further, dropping from his height of 6ft 3in to the ground to live like, and among, the animals.
Eating earthworms, licking slugs and scuffling around on all fours – noses to the ground – he and his then eight-year-old son (or cub) Tom lived nocturnally for six weeks as badgers in a Welsh wood; his farmer friend dug out a sett for them in the hillside with a JCB.
In the East Lyn river, Foster thrashed around as an otter, catching the occasional unlucky fish in his mouth, and failing to notice a leech attached to his lip for an hour as his face numbed from the cold. The winter depressed him, and his jacket was stolen from the riverbank. His otter experience was not his highlight.
He had more luck as an urban fox in London’s East End, where he slept in backyards, prowled the streets, and rooted around people’s bins, eating leftovers he covered in mixed spices to avoid the taste of strangers’ saliva.
Foster used to live in the East End, but he didn’t like it much and moved to Oxford seven years ago. Foxes proved better Londoners than he was. “The foxes showed me a London that was old and deep enough to live in and be kind about,” he writes. “They negotiated an uneasy peace between me and the East End.”
But they weren’t all good. One vixen stole a chicken leg from him – a moment he delighted in, finding it his most authentic experience as an animal. “There was that eye-to-eye connection, in which, fancifully or otherwise, I thought there was reciprocity,” he recalls. “There was that I-thou relationship, which all my theory about the natural world has told me, but it’s often difficult to feel.”
Foster also paraglided to be closer to the swifts he so admires, and attempted to be hunted as a red deer in Exmoor. His friend set a bloodhound on him. Foster tore across a field and through a wood, only for the dog to catch up, take one look at him, and turn away back to its master.
It’s difficult to imagine Foster’s adventures on this cosy weekday morning, chatting to him over coffee with his donnish persona, woolly jumper and jeans, just before he heads in to college.
“It upsets me very much,” he sighs, when I bring up how his academic life contradicts his animal ambitions. “I’m being hypocritical in sitting at a table and drinking out of a china cup.”
Indeed, Foster calls his book “an admission of failure” to achieve his aim, which is to relate to nature and our animal ancestors on a sensory – rather than cognitive – level.
He believes humans are “trapped into a visual way of looking at the world”, and derides nature writing as “a colonial enterprise” in which we impose our gaze on the land. He describes the “outrage” and “arrogance” he felt when he reverted to standing upright after six weeks as a badger. “It seemed presumptuous,” he sighs.
Foster was once one of the humans he now wishes had more empathy with nature. He used to hunt and shoot voraciously. Every winter, he stalked deer in the Highlands. He shot wildfowl in Kent. He bought his daughter a shotgun when she was ten, and wrote a monthly column in The Shooting Times.
“The fact that I did it when there was no nutritional justification is something of which I am now very ashamed,” he admits. “But the reason I took up hunting was because I wanted to continue to have that relationship with the natural world which I had experienced in its greatest intimacy when I was a child.”
As a young boy growing up in Sheffield, Foster kept nature diaries and became obsessed with a blackbird in the back garden. He seems envious of how much closer – “literally! They’re closer to the ground” – children are to animals, and “worries sick” about his children “unlearning everything” they sense about nature.
But Foster is more of a campaigner than the whimsical naturalist he is in Being a Beast. His purpose has become more political since it was published.
“We act towards the natural world with a lack of empathy, which, were we to express ourselves like that towards humans, would be regarded as frankly psychopathic,” he laments.
“I would like people to think, when they’re about to bite into their steak, is this tantamount to cannibalism? This steak is part of the buttock of a fairly near relative.”
Being a Beast by Charles Foster is published by Profile Books.