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256 pages, Hardcover
First published January 28, 2016
"Our sett was cradled in the interlocking fingers of tree roots: beech on either side, oak from above. The whole wood bent to the wind. There was no overground or underground: it was all just ground. We rocked in our cradle, the roots above us straining and creaking like the timbers of a rolling ship."
Nagel asks if it's possible for people to conceive what it's like to be a bat, and his conclusion is that it (probably) is not; we can only conceive what it would be like to be a human who was a bat. For example, bats use echolocation sonar to know what's in front of them. It's not difficult to imagine humans having echolocation sonar and how that would help us walk through a pitch-black room. That experience can be visualized. But what we can't understand is how that experience informs the consciousness of a bat. We can't even assess what level of consciousness a bat possesses, since the only available barometer for "consciousness" is our own. The interior life of a bat (or an octopus, or any nonhuman creature) is beyond our capacity [Italics mine].This speaks to what I meant when I said I thought Foster's project was ill-conceived. By mimicking the mechanics of a badger or a swift (burrowing or flying) he thinks he can know what they think. He guesses at what they feel (sentience) but he cannot answer the consciousness question.
Nobody really likes cats as cats. They're intrinsically unlikable: vain, cold, and cruel. To like a cat you've got to turn it into something that it plainly isn't. You have to dress it up as a lover, a post-mistress, or an old school chum. Cats are at their best in the hands of a really bad taxidermist.
There are no prolonged ascents or descents in an otter's life, because there is no prolonged anything. These animals inhabit the instant, but not in a way that redeems it. There is a wretched, desperate, hypertensive, hungry moment. Then there is another such moment. And another. The dots are not connected, in that flattened head, to form a personality. Anxiety, when it is severe, erodes the self. If it is constitutional it precludes a self. Otters are circuit boards. There's nothing else there.
When I raised my head I could see bats flickering in and out of the lacework of the oaks, and a barn owl ghosting over the walls in the field across the river, and wood pigeons settling fussily in for the night. These had no place in the badger's night. Badgers trade these airy pleasures for darker, stickier, mucousy, damper, rougher pleasures. Dropping my head was like going from Schubert in the conservatoire to a candle-lit bordello where you wade through beer to the bed. If I had to pick one word for the badger's experience, it would be intimate. Grass and bracken stems brush your face. When you're forcing a new path, every step is like a birth. Water shudders off grass into your eyes. Things slide away. Slide; hop; rush. You don't just absorb the world; you make it. You make the fear that rustles away on every side.
Earthworms taste of slime and the land. They are the ultimate local food, and as the wine people would say, have a very distinct terroir. Worms from Chablis have a long, mineral finish. Worms from Picardy are musty; they taste of decay and splintered wood. Worms from the high Kent Weald are fresh and uncomplicated; they'd appear in the list recommended with a grilled sole. Worms from the Somerset Levels have a stolid, unfashionable taste of leather and stout. But the worms of the Welsh Black Mountains are hard to place: they would be a serious challenge on a blind tasting. I'm not quite pretentious enough to have a go at describing them.
Learn old tunes; eat food that comes from where you are. Sit in the corner of a field, hearing. Put in wax earplugs, close your eyes and smell. Sniff everything, wherever you are: turn on those olfactory centres. Say, with St Francis, 'Hello, brother ox', and mean it.