Charles Foster, a fellow of Green Templeton who teaches medical law and ethics, wanted to 'rewild' himself. So in his spare time he has tried living as a badger, an otter, an urban fox, a red deer and a swift.
Fellow of Green Templeton Charles Foster takes a nap, wild animal style
By Olivia Gordon
Charles Foster has spent six weeks ‘being’ a badger, eating earthworms while burrowed in a self-dug sett, joined by his then eight-year-old ‘cub’ Tom. Then to experience life as an otter, he spent hours at a time floating, swimming, and lying by the side of a river. As a fox, he lived on the streets of London, scavenging in dustbins for scraps. More challenging still was getting into the mindset of a deer, which included arranging to be ‘hunted’ by a hound. He has even tried to enter into life as a swift, where the inability to fly was obviously a major problem.
It all sounds utterly mad at first, but Foster is not only sane, but, as one would hope of an Oxford don and barrister, an immensely clever free thinker. In ‘being a beast’, as he coins it, he never actually believes he can become an animal, but is experimenting to get as close as humanly possible to animal life, in full awareness of animals’ otherness.
Foster’s Grandpoint house, where he lives with his wife Mary, a GP, and their four young children, is cheerfully scruffy - he says not to take off my shoes; I’ll collect more dirt inside than I’ll bring in. A taxidermy herring gull gazes from the kitchen wall and veterinary magazines are scattered across the table.
Love of nature seems too bland and cosy a way to describe Foster’s fierce lifelong connection to the natural world. ‘I started off as an absolutely passionate, fanatical naturalist,’ he says. Growing up in a working class home in Sheffield, his father, a school headmaster, brought back road kill for Foster to skin, dissect and stuff in their garden shed. ‘It was my way of trying to get close to these creatures. Animals were my Lego,’ says Foster.
As a boy, he ‘became obsessed with the eye of a blackbird in our garden. It knew something that I didn’t know. That aggravated me – I wanted to know what it knew that I didn’t. That set me off on the road to a lot of things, including the enquiry of what we can know about anything at all.’ Foster ‘sometimes went to sleep holding a formalinised brain of a blackbird’. It sounds macabre, he knows, ‘but in other cultures less alienated from the natural world I don’t think that would be regarded as weird.’
Having read veterinary medicine and law at Cambridge, Foster found work as a vet and then a barrister, and now lectures and supervises Oxford law students. He is the author of several dozen books – many of which, Foster says, are about ‘human dignity and the limits of autonomy – should we be entitled to make any decision we want about the way we live and die?’ A practicing barrister involved in high-profile cases like that of Tony Nicklinson and Debbie Purdy, his career has focused on issues like consent to medical treatment, assisted suicide and the status of the early embryo. He also continues to practice as a vet, and has a sideline as an explorer, having roughed it from the North Pole to the Sinai.
How does all this fit with his animal life? ‘It may seem that the link between the law faculty in Oxford and a badger’s sett scooped out of a Welsh hillside is remote, but it’s actually there,’ Foster explains. ‘A lot of my research is concerned with questions of identity and authenticity. I agonise about philosophical questions. Who am I and is it really possible to really know another person properly? Do I actually know anything about my wife? Is the universe which she occupies as inaccessible as the far-most reaches of the universe? I wanted to reassure myself I could know something about my wife, children and dearest friends. The best way of testing the proposition was to see if I could know anything about a non-human species. If I can know something about a badger, there is at least a chance I can know something about my wife.’
Ultimately Foster’s experiments have been reassuring. ‘I have had moments – only moments! – but moments which were sufficiently intimate for me to think I probably do know my friends’. The most intense such moment took place in a back yard in east London when Foster came face to face with a fox which had grabbed a chicken leg from a bin. ‘There was some sort of connection I can’t describe,’ says Foster. ‘It was a glance of the same sort you have across the dinner table with your lover.’
What was the hardest part of being an animal? Life as an otter in Exmoor – ‘I had such little empathy with these animals. How do I make this jangly vicious world link with the nice bucolic feelings I’m having in this beautiful place? To be an authentic otter I had to feel jangly and neurotic, and that was hard.’
Speaking with Foster, I find myself wishing I spent more time outside, in some wilderness. What do Oxford colleagues make of his animal living? ‘Nobody has said I should be committed to a secure unit,’ he jokes. Many, he says, respond as I have, asking ‘why would one do that?’ A depressing number of people, he adds, are interested in what earthworms taste like.
Foster is a questioner, an experimentalist – unassuming and self-deprecating about his ‘tweedy eccentricity’, yet bold, even outrageous in trying to climb back down the evolutionary tree. While living as an otter and experiencing ‘sprainting’ (dung-depositing), Foster got his children to mark outdoor territories with turds and then as a family they tried to identify each pooer by the turds’ differing scents. He says: ‘We all know there is a beast nestling within us.
‘Our world is by and large a shrill, shrieking world…I Google ‘swift’ and I get ‘Taylor Swift’. [The animal] world is one of nuance, of whisper, of lyric…it’s in so many ways a better place to be and we have to be re-wilded in order to be properly human.’ Yes, being a badger was uncomfortable and boring at first, intensely so, he says. But then ‘you recalibrate your senses and attention span. It’s like meditation’.
Foster is bold, too, in stretching rules to fuse biology, philosophy, shamanism and poetry. ‘I think Oxford is incredibly bad at multidisciplinary working,’ he says. ‘There is an abiding suspicion of suggesting one can transgress traditional boundaries.’ He adds that it is his ‘deep suspicion of abstraction’ which makes him actually go and live in a badger’s burrow in the rain, using his hands as paws. ‘It’s no good, if you want to understand the world, to sit in a study in Oxford and think about it.’
Although most of his animal life experiments have been in other parts of the country, Foster seeks refuge daily in Oxford’s nature - Christchurch meadow where he sees roe deer in winter; a forgotten patch of wood behind the railway ‘where the children and I run wild’. Locally, he detects ‘a sense of siege; animals fighting against the ring road and developers’.
Every year he ‘waits desperately’ for the screaming sound that heralds the migration of swifts – ‘they’re usually here by May Day, and when the swifts come back, you can be reassured the world is still turning’.
Charles Foster’s latest book, Being a Beast, is published this February by Profile Books.
Images: Charles Foster, Profile Books