Meet the Family by Charles Foster
When you’re in the wood on your hands and knees, your eyes, just like a badger’s, aren’t going to be much use. You’ll learn the wood’s distant silhouettes, but you’ll have to shuffle snufflingly through the wild garlic, bumping into your food. You’ll learn how scent is unlocked by the early morning sun, levitates like a magician’s assistant, ebbs and flows in swirling tides up and down the beach of the valley, and bounces off trees and rocks. After a while the valley will be the scent – not the scent translated into visual-ese.
Have a go. At the worst you’ll vomit, get sore knees, and be dismissed as insane. But I bet you’ll leave the wood thinking that evolution isn’t so tectonic: that the frontier between the species is exhilaratingly porous: that there are more, more ancient, and furrier photos in your family album than you’d known. You might even start feeling queasily cannibalistic when you eat pulled pork.
But with a swift it’s different. You have to go back another 40 million years from our badger ancestor to meet the scaly, strutting, cackling thing that spawned us both. Swifts inhabit the air as thought inhabits my mind; without a ripple; giving the air consciousness and form. They sleep on the wing, sucked up by the retreating sun. They graze spiralling fields of thrashing aerial plankton. They copulate on the wing. The swifts that were hatched this summer in the eaves of my house in Oxford may not touch anything more solid than the carapace of an airborne beetle for four years until they breed in the hot dusty tunnel above my head. They won’t perch; they walk only on the air; they surf the blue and the storm for four unbroken years.
Everything I did to get near them seemed for a while to taunt me with their unapproachability. Harnesses, straps and planes all screamed: ‘Lumpen!’ I climbed as high as I could up a tree that swayed among low-feeding swifts, but clung to it like a fungus. I tried to map the estuary of air spilling out into the sky over the south Oxford suburbs, and my map was a pretentious lump of donnish adjectives with no air at all in it. I followed the southbound swifts across Europe, across the Straits of Gibraltar, and into Africa, trying to believe that if I was faithful to them, and breathed the air they breathed, they’d trust me and beckon me in with a tilt of one of those scythe wings. I got big hotel bills and diarrhoea.
The swifts remained up there; out there; screaming on the edge of the world; beyond the edge of my mind.
Being A Beast by Charles Foster is out now in hardback.