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BooksApril 1, 2020

Lockdown letters #6, Ashleigh Young: I keep thinking about the beast man

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The outside is telling us, ‘I could do that again whenever I wanted. You think about that.’

Read more Lockdown letters here.

‘When I’m being a badger I live in a hole and eat earthworms,” the nature writer Charles Foster wrote. “When I’m being an otter I try to catch fish with my teeth.” When he was being a fox, he rummaged in bins in East London and slept in gardens and pooed here and there. When being a deer, he got some bloodhounds to chase him so he could see what that was like. Finally, when being a swift, he went up with a parachute and sort of just drifted around, like a big aphid. “I lurch, swing, and churn.”

I keep thinking about the beast man. When I’m out cycling I imagine him heaving himself off a branch like a wood pigeon or scurrying across the road like a rat.

The beast man lives in Oxford and teaches at the university. When I first heard of his book, Being a Beast, I was sceptical. Everyone knows you can’t know what it’s like to be an animal just by living in a hole or eating dead squirrels off the road. But I had just read a book by a man who had lived as a goat, so I was in the right headspace. I read the book, and I thought the beast man’s writing was vivid and poetic. I enjoyed his descriptions of eating earthworms (“Earthworms taste of slime and the land”; at one point the worms seem to drip “from the hill like mucus candles from a snotty-nosed child”). I liked the way he admitted, in a lavish sort of way, that he had failed at really getting inside the minds of any of the beasts. But the main thrust seemed to be that there are big differences between humans and non-human animals, and therefore big differences between our respective umwelts (an umwelt being an organism’s unique sensory experience of the world) and therefore we can never know another organism’s lived experience. But don’t we already kind of know that? And don’t we already know that humans are uniquely self-important and that we’re always dismissing other sensibilities and kinds of intelligence? Even though I admired the beast man’s commitment to the beast life, I felt there was something self-indulgent about the bug-eating and burrowing, the shivering in the rain. Maybe if he was really, truly committed to being a badger, he wouldn’t have written a book.

Also, when I read that the beast man has a vehement hatred of cats, thinks otters don’t feel pain, and thinks that cows, horses and pigs are “machines; islands; cold gene bearers”, I decided there was something kind of wrong with him. The book’s premise seemed at first like it was an exercise in empathy, or at least curiosity about the inner lives of animals, but he had short-circuited somewhere along the line and now he was just a man eating worms.

One of the problems with these largely unstructured days is that when I have a thought, I can follow it too far. And so I return to the beast man, again and again. It might actually be a good time to be an animal, now, rather than a human. (But I know a lot of people have been thinking “Now would be a good time to –”, and what comes next is almost always some self-punishing idea.) It would be a relief to know the world through different senses, and to be free from human worry, hope, impatience with technology, worry, worry, worry, and the urge to describe things. And to experience the outside as a familiar place again – the way a particular tree or powerline is familiar to a bird – rather than strange.

It rained heavily for ages the other day, and it felt like the outside was telling us, “This isn’t for you anymore.” After the rain, I went out. There’s a feeling after heavy rain – a kind of caution, everything conditional. The outside is telling us, “I could do that again whenever I wanted. You think about that.” I worry about all the writers who are hard at work, coming up with good descriptions of empty streets. Don’t do it, I want to shout. Trying to describe an empty street is a fool’s game. It’s not necessary to imprint ourselves everywhere, to claim everything. But it’s impossible to resist. Especially when the street has a few leaves blowing down it, or a sparrow pecking at something on the road, or, far in the distance, the sound of someone yelling. See? I’m at it again. The street is just so empty.

It’s the luckiest thing to only feel a bit lonely or bored or sleepless, and to worry I’m going to go a bit weird because I can’t escape myself. The luckiest thing to even have a spare moment to follow a thought. It is lucky because it means I am well enough to feel all of those things, and because it means I get to stay home and write this while supermarket workers and healthcare workers and delivery drivers are holding things together. Their streets are not empty. Meanwhile, for everyone else, boredom and worry and describing are our vital signs. And wondering, too. I wonder how the beast man is doing. I hope he is fine.

Tomorrow: Morgan Godfery



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