December spun round, with log fires, crafting and cooking gifts, with visits to family and friends. The long dark hours of the early winter always allow for plenty of reading time as well though, especially during those precious, quiet days between the revelries of Christmas and the New Year.
I mixed fiction and fact with two outstanding books, not just for their sparkling writing, but for their similarity in theme; being human and attempting to understand the mind and experience of other animals. First came a classic, TH White’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’. I have vague memories of the Disney version (always preferred the Robin Hood cartoon) and I was surprised with how much of the book was dedicated to the Wart’s education, consisting of transformations from future king into a variety of creatures, both great and small. More recently published, Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ documented his attempts to enter the sensory & cognitive realm of the animals with whom he has shared his life; badger, otter, fox, swift and red deer.
Forster’s book was unlike anything I have read before, placing it alongside mind-expander, genre hoppers such as ‘H is for Hawk.’ Early on he acknowledges the essential impossibility of truly knowing the perspective of another species. Instead he approaches his task armed with the duo of comprehension tools, neurological knowledge, gleaned in the past few decades, and our shared mammalian experience of landscape. It is an audacious and exciting project, and in a world brimming with the monstrous egocentrism of humanity and its subsequent effects on all the other branches of our family if life on earth, a necessary corrective too. It wasn’t the detailed description of times and places I had imagined, but ranged across areas of knowledge, with both depth and breadth. He has a mind to stand in awe and envy.
Knowing the varying amounts of different sensory cells in the receptors of the animals he studied, prompted different foci in the stories of each. There was the violence of a motor car thundering past a badger deep in the smell of the world six inches from the ground; the critical importance of even the smallest of sounds as a stag is hunted down; the warmth of the otter submerged, protected by its double layer of fur. The beautiful chapter about swifts acknowledges the increased difficulties in the imaginary leap between us the avians , although I’ve always felt closer to them than the reptiles, but perhaps this is just my desire for wings of my own.
The fictional accounts of Wart’s transformations into other species in ‘The Sword in the Stone’ was much more traditionally anthropocentric. Although White skill fully differentiated the animals Wart became, the purpose of the change was for the boy’s education in the ways of man, whether that be the role of collectivism in society or the waging of wars against others. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t a joy to be taken on ride through the Forest Sauvage through the eyes of an owl, or the moat waters as a perchit was just that they seemed like animals with human cognition. All except perhaps the ants, whose minds were described as limited to a simple done/not done dichotomy, which seemed a perfect description of those busy friends by our feet.
Again, White clearly had a depth of knowledge of the natural world which I can only strive toward for now. His nature writing is beautiful and it is a book to be recommended to anyone wanting read about our nature with children. If I had a class of 10yr olds instead of 6, it’d be our class story in an instant. How lucky we are to contain the capacity to imagine ourselves into other minds. It may be harder to do for other species, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an activity well worth undertaking.