And you thought your family were strange
Charles Foster is perfectly placed to write this book, as his family are sufficiently open-minded to assist, and I doubt many parents would encourage their child to live in a hole in a hill with them for weeks on end, or to ask siblings to spraint (poo-communications) like otters along a river bank. My family never once played a game of ‘Whose Poo is it Anyway?’, and for that I am grateful, but I am also grateful to Foster’s family for getting on board. Strange, as in unusual, is good.
I am grateful to his small son for eating worms and licking slugs and letting us know the difference in taste between the big black ones and the smaller brown ones. I am grateful to Charles himself for laying in a rive when being an otter, and trying to sleep under city bushes when being an urban fox. His views, the angle he saw the world, ankles and shopping bags for foxes, tunnels of water for otters, described so vividly, I think this book is the closest anyone can get to reading from and animal’s eye view.
A few things really struck me, firstly, the observation about how badgers belong to an area of land. As humans, we rarely have that, and many wouldn’t want it, but to live on the same land for generation, to have the bones of your ancestors underneath and around you for hundreds of years at a stretch, it’s true consistency.
There is also a wonderful description of what life is like for an otter –
Being an otter is like being on speed. In suburban life the nearest I can get to it is to stay up for a couple of nights, drinking a double espresso ever couple of hours before having a cold bath followed by a huge breakfast of still-twitching sushi and then a nap, and keep repeating until I die…
The other alarming thing is otters need to eat 20% of their body weight a day. The author compares that to eating 88 Big Macs a day for a man his size, or 3,800 bags of crisps. While they may need that much weight, they may not need that kind of calorie-dense food, but imagine what it is like for someone of 10 stone to eat 2 stone of food a day. That’s a lot of chewing. This is probably why otters spend a lot of time sleeping and frantically eating (and sprainting, the waste of that 20% needs to go somewhere), and fighting with eat other (often to the death) and they also eat ducks and ducklings. I had no idea! Still, I love otters, and in a way I prefer the wild nature, and how they seem to have less-human emotions. They may look all cute cuddled up together, but they generally live alone, and once those cubs are taught the ways of the world, they are gone. Otters don’t have family reunions.
I prefer this as what I hate most about seeing road-kill is I immediately picture the gang back at the set or den. ‘Hey, has anyone seen Dave? He didn’t come home last night.’ and then worry spreading through the family. Search parties sent out, little fluffy ears straining to hear familiar step, noses twitching searching for the familiar small. The book cites examples of emotional bonds, such as a vixen taking food to an injured dog, and where one fox had her leg shredded by a grass cutter (but was rescued by a fox-loving lady) and the vixen’s sister was seen burying food at the site of the accident while making the noise they do when feeding cubs, and these just break my heart. Otters are having none of that. ‘Hey, has anyone seen Dave? He’s not been around for a while.’ Cue shrugging, and ‘I don’t know any Dave, come to think of it, I don’t know you. Didn’t you smell my poo, this is my house! You’ll go the same way as David if you don’t sling yer hook, buddy boy.’
There is also a chapter on being a red deer (where he gets himself hunted by deer-hounds) and one on swifts. He can’t fly, but he can, while walking a child to nursery opportunistically, climb up high and jump through a sudden cloud of insects with his mouth open and spit the nymphs onto the bonnet of a Merc. My dad has done some damn cringe-worthy things, but never that.
We probably need people like Foster now more than ever, we need more progressive and less closed-in thinkers, and he’s a barrister and an Oxford professor, which is probably why as crazy as many of the things in his book sound, they come across as sensible, and I’m glad he did them. There’s an incident while he is being a fox and he is moved on by a policeman, and it’s the policeman’s attitude to a man trying to appreciate just how loud traffic is when heard from street level that seems bizarre, than that of the man doing the laying on the ground.