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Charles Foster:
we are all in coracles

Charles writes to help us rediscover our relationship with the earth – the relationship which has made us the shape that we are. There is, he says, no seam between us and the wild. His writing and teaching draws on biology, anthropology, theology, archaeology, philosophy, law and travel to probe the questions ‘who or what are we?’ and ‘what on earth are we doing here?’.

Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Original score by Art School Girlfriend.


I must be two, no more. I’m in my bedroom. There are the usual childhood things around, teddy bears, blankets. But tonight it’s a bit different. Tonight as I stand up in my cot or on my bed, I can’t remember which, I look out to the window and sitting on a street lamp, just a few yards from my window is an owl. My memory insists that it’s a barn owl, but that seems unlikely from what I know now. It’s got eyes which seem as big as saucers. It’s head is unlike the head of anything else I’ve met, seems to be able to turn all the way around. I’m so close to it that I can see its claws. I must look at it for five minutes, ten minutes. It’s a creature from another place, but it’s a creature from a place that I want desperately to be in. That feeling of wanting to be in the other place, doesn’t make me at all less happy with the place that I’m in. Quite the opposite, the fact that there is another happy, safe world, which is different from the one I’m in, makes me happier and more reassured. It seems to me that that’s an indication that the whole universe is probably as cozy and as kind and as soft as my childhood bedroom. And then the owl flies off. It flies off completely silently. I shouldn’t have been reassured by this. I should have seen those talons. This was a creature that existed to kill. It should have introduced horror and the idea of competition and loss and the ripping and the dislocation of things. Only a very young or very insensitive child could not have come to the conclusion as I did, that this should be included in the list of precious reassuring memories of safety. 

It’s a very interesting place, Sheffield. It stops very abruptly. Doesn’t sprawl like so many cities and Sheffield stopped right at the top of our road, just a few hundred yards away from our suburban house. Neon lights gave up and there was the dark. And it was real wilderness from the bus stop onwards, a wilderness characterised by very ancient monuments and even more ancient landscapes. So the wind that blew in at my bedroom window was wind that came from the Pennines and it brought with it the smell of the heather and the sound of howling and grunting and screeching. Because the wind from that wilderness blew in at my window, it never seemed to me that there was any real seam between the wild and the unwind. It always seemed to me that I was a wild thing and that the commuters on our street who spent that Sunday afternoon polishing their Ford Cortinas were wild things too. So I had no idea where I was from no idea what sort of creature I was. 

[Sound of family dinner being eaten]

I still didn’t really. Who is Charles Foster? Answer, I can’t tell you, except by describing the nexus of relationships in which he exists, and that nexus of relationships ultimately includes everybody in the entire world. Not just my friends or family, everyone. Everything has to be taken into account in order to locate me.

I was on a long expedition in a desert in the Middle East. I was with two Bedouin men. They spoke a dialect of Arabic which I couldn’t get my head around. We were pegged to a particular itinerary because we’d left caches of food and water. And the distances between those caches was such that we spent a lot of time just sitting and waiting. So I was on my own without anybody to talk to for huge periods of time. To begin with, I thought that that was going to be exciting. But soon I’d worked my way through all the books I’d taken with me and I was left with nothing to do, but stare into the middle distance and stare into the soul of Charles Foster. And being arrogant, I thought that exploring the soul of Charles Foster would be a really fascinating thing to do. And so I looked in and it was like looking into a deep, an echoing, well. There was nothing there. The panic is still something that I shudder at. What was this creature that I called myself? I couldn’t see it, it didn’t seem to have a voice, it didn’t seem to have a smell. Didn’t seem to have the taste that I thought it was going to have. Didn’t seem to have any taste. 

I went back to Alexandria eventually, in despair. That’s still a city that I’m fearful to return to. I wandered round, like a dead man walking, because it seemed I was a dead man walking. Where was the liveliness? Anyway, to cut a fairly long story short I found myself back in London and I found myself in a church, which I hadn’t been to before. And I found myself suddenly full of tears with the sensation of being filled up physically from the toes, upwards, like a jug being filled. And what it was being filled with was something that I sort of recognised. It was the thing which I had previously been calling myself. My self had been given back to me. 

[Sound of family dinner being eaten]

So we have here Johnny Foster, age eight. So Johnny here is your chance to ask me something about my work that you’ve always wanted to know

Johnny: Okay. Well, I’ve always wanted to know is, how much do you get paid when you’re writing your books? 

Well, I suppose there are two answers, Johnny. The first is nowhere near enough because in some ways I suppose it will be very nice not to have to worry about money. And the second answer is that I get paid far too much because all my books are written just for me. And it seems unfair doesn’t it, to get paid for writing something, which you do just for yourself. There we are, any other questions? 

Johnny: nope

What, there’s nothing at all about my life or my work, which interests you at all?

Johnny: nothing at all. 

All right. Well, thank you very much, Johnny. 

When I get up in the morning, I sit for about 35 minutes in meditation. I try to gather together from the disparate and distant places where they are all of my thoughts. Part of me is in Thailand, part of me is in a thesis, part of is in a book. Part of me is in a dysfunctional relationship. So the thing that I call I is dangerously divided. It’s in millions of different places, but I try to gather them all together in one place and that place is where my breath happens to be only when they’re compressed together in one place can I talk meaningfully about ‘I’. Over the day, the process of division begins again, the ‘I’ get split up.

[Cello playing]

Brace yourself, I’m now going to creep in on Johnny’s cello practice. 

[Cello practice]

We have porous boundaries: I bleed into you, you bleed into me, we all bleed into each other, and that can either be a horrible thing to think or an ecstatic thing to think. And I suppose part of the business of reflection and growing up is trying to make it more ecstatic than horrific. This process of necessary interpenetration.

If our relationships evaporate. So do we, we are our relationships.  

[Cello practice]

Unwanted! I gave them life and this is how they reward me. 

So, the journey has been to try to get progressively more integration of these disparate fragments. To try to understand what it means to use the first person. Because if I can use the first person, then I can begin to know what it means to know another person. If I can know I, and if I can know thou, relationship is possible and the world isn’t as lonely a place as on the face of it as it would seem to be. 

Every morning I spring out of bed and I’m astonished that I have the opportunities that I have, that I have the family that I have, that I have the astonishing friends that I have, that the world is as full of the possibilities of exploration and mere sensual experience that it does have. It’s just that I would like to be able to say with more conviction each time – I love seeing that, or I love drinking that, or I love you. 

[music playing] 

Now, I’ve just wandered out into Oxford garden and our neighbors are gossiping all around. And at the end of the garden is my wife, Mary. She is tuning up her violin because over the other side of the fence are our neighbours, John and Gina who are going to join Mary in some music making. Ah, they’re just starting at the end. I shall take you a little bit nearer. 

The process of metamorphosis, if that’s right, is the process of smashing up the false ideas we have about the whole world and replacing them with something which approximates rather better to the way the world really is. Smashing up our ideas about the sorts of creatures that we are. And the sorts of creatures that our beloved people are as well because we will have misrepresented them. Normally we just worship ourselves when we think we’re loving someone else, because we’re loving the pictures which we have drawn of them. And there’s too much of ourselves in those pictures. 

Change is happening anyway. And the time that it’s taken me to say that simple short sentence, some of the cells in my body have died and been replaced by other ones. The body that’s speaking to you now is a rather different body from the one which began speaking to you a few minutes ago. Change happens anyway. 

I’m just looking in the sky, hoping to see the first swallow of the season. They’ve been spotted around here and the cuckoos have arrived. In a couple of weeks time the swifts will have arrived, and I will sit out here in the evening drinking farm cider and watching the swifts scream overhead. And then I will be happier than I am at any other time in the year.

Light is usually greater than darkness and will always win. The darkness, which everyone seems to spend all of their time describing or marinating themselves in is historically a very transient phenomenon. We’ve now tasted meaninglessness and certainly everyone under the age of 40 doesn’t like the taste. Society is back. Now, I’m going to get back to the house because the wretched children haven’t as requested laid the table for the virtual Zoom dinner party, which starts in about half an hour. 

What do we need to plan for? Well we need to plan for the planet settling old scores. And I don’t mean by that that the planet is vindictive, it’s not. Mothers aren’t vindictive, but there are some laws of cause and effect, which even the most compassionate mother can’t escape from. And what I’m talking about of course is the climate. And what I’m talking about, of course, is deforestation. We need to plan to deal with the men, and they will be men, who use pathetically old but dangerous ways to deal with their fear of these changes. There will be some scary times, but the changes which I see all around us are overwhelmingly more good than they are bad. We’re beginning to see what most human beings are like. Funny, different, original, gentle, sensitive. There are far more poets amongst us than there are draftsmen of commercial contracts. 

I sense that kindness is going to overwhelm the old ways of competition and lust and unconcern. I feel that there’s a new attention to little things. The things about people, which we’ve previously said are little. Of course, there is nothing little about people. So I think we’re moving into a new altruistic age and not the sort of altruistic age, which is characterised by the fake altruism of ‘you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’, or kin selection or group selection. Any of the types of fake altruism, which are really disguised competition. 

[Charles talking to his children]

Who or what inspires me? Well, my children and the natural world, and I don’t distinguish between those things. My children are part of the natural world in a way that I’m not. Plato was right. The process of understanding anything at all about the world is the process of animesis, unforgetting, and children have forgotten so much less than we have about the way that things are. The process of growing up is the process of growing away from the way things are. The process of becoming sophisticated, mature, is the process of forgetting the way that things really are. That’s one of the great insights of the romantic movement, isn’t it? That children can be our tutors. And certainly my children continue to teach me more than any textbook. More than any David Attenborough, can possibly teach me about flowers and birds. They’re so much closer. 

[Children talking, as Charles walks through his house]

Here’s a story from the future. There was a man called Tom. One day, he walked out of his house with his wife and his children. He stood just outside the doorstep and he looked at the countryside in front of him and he said to his wife and his children, look at the way that that world is looking at you. Just think of all those eyes and all those ears and all those noses. Looking at you, appraising you, judging you saying good morning. Wouldn’t it be polite to nod at them and say, good morning back? So they walked out into the wilderness in front of their door, and they sat down in a glade in the woods. And one of the children, because it’s usually the children who have the real insight, said to Tom, this is a place that I think has claimed us. This is a place which has made us its own. And Tom said, yeah, I know you mean. A very wonderful thing happened. They decided that they would try to listen to what the insects were saying and the birds were singing and what the plants were doing in whatever sort of mode plants communicate. Because the learning of all languages is difficult, it took a while. To begin with they just heard whisperings, itchings in their ears. Sometimes itchings in their noses. Because it wasn’t just through their ears and their minds that they began to understand what was going on in that wood. But quite quickly they learned, they learned that that world was absolutely desperate to be friends with them. It had been trying, so they heard it say for years and years and years to make contact, it had been storing up stories and jokes. Not all the stories were good. Some of the stories were mournful stories, stories of loss, stories of desolation. Quite a lot of the stories were good as well. Whatever you say about the stories that are told by squirrels and badgers and pieces of grass and acorns, they’re interesting. Once you can hear them, you won’t want to go back and watch the telly again. After a few weeks of this Tom and his wife and his children said, in a way that they had never been able to say before, this is our home. It’s not some little colonial station where we’ve set up shop, bravely. This is our home, because it’s got a claim on us and we have a claim on it. And the conversation which Tom’s future family has with the land is a conversation which we used to be able to have before we lost those languages. And we can have, again. This was the way in which for most of human history, we started and continued our days. And I think lots of us are beginning to relearn those languages. 

I’ve been reading a lot of the Celtic saints and some of these men just got into coracles or other little boats and just set sail. They didn’t have maps. Most of them didn’t have any navigation skills. They relied on the wind and the tides. Here’s one of them writing, ‘It’s time for me to pass from the shelter of the habitation to journey as a pilgrim over the waves of the bold and splendid sea, time to deliberate how I might find the great son of Mary.”

Everything in life is inevitably, crucially, frighteningly exhilaratingly contingent. There might be an electrical storm in your heart in the next couple of seconds, which will take your journey to the next phase. There might be an uncontrolled multiplication of the cells in your gut, which will mean that you’re eventually translated to another dimension. These are the facts. We’re all really in boats like those Celtic monks. We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what the wind or the tides are going to do. So we might as well enjoy the view, enjoy the wind in our face, be excited by the thought that wherever we are washed up, there might be something new. 

And here I am working. You can probably hear the rain hammering on the roof, above my head. 

I type on a clumsy, very old fashioned laptop. I hate modern sleek laptops. And at the moment, I’m trying to think myself into the life of the neolithic. Here’s the bit from my notebook that I’ve just been thinking about through my fingers. “The hard part of the neolithic was when hominins with brains wired to live in groups of 150 and to learn to cope with much larger, more complex societies. To do so they needed new cultural mechanisms.”  We need some new cultural mechanisms don’t we. Or perhaps the old cultural mechanisms.