This is a personal travel journal of sorts.
The author, Charles Foster wants to know the path we have taken to become the humans we are today. Perhaps more importantly, he wants to explore the possibility that we may have wandered off-track somewhere along the way.
To do this he embarks on an immersive journey, re-embodying the lived experience and worldview (to the best of his somewhat constrained ability) of humans living in 3 pivotal periods of our history.
- Exploring the upper Palaeolithic (around 40 thousand years ago) when the boundaries between human and non-human were porous and symbolic,
- to the Neolithic (around 10 thousand years ago), when humans began to change their beliefs and behaviours in response to the constraints of a developing agricultural society
- and finally to the Age of Enlightenment (across the 17th and 18th centuries), when science finally explained and constrained the world within empiric binds of materialism and reductionism.
But this is far from a dry history book. Foster writes with a spiritual richness and poetic beauty that reminds me of two of my favourite authors Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard) and Robert Macfarlane (Underland).
Sometimes I found his attempts at recreating his brief, almost shamanic journey into the liminal spaces of the Palaeolithic and Neolithic worlds to be a bit of a superficial contrivance (spoiler alert: he ate a LOT of roadkill to survive), but at other times they resonated deeply with me.
Yes, I think we have wandered far off track.
The air in the valleys is thick with red deer musk and spiralling clouds of tiny flies. The canopies are turning sunlight into sugar and pumping it through thin stiff veins. I’d prefer to sleep here, but the midges would suck me dry, and so I’m always on the moor at night.
I sleep when my legs get tired, and so the days get longer as I get fitter. I eat as I walk. There’s plenty at the moment, for blackberries have come early, and there’s plenty of wild salad. I assume that walkers are out to hunt and kill me.
The map is in my head from previous trips, I’m afraid. I should have gone to Siberia or anywhere else I didn’t know well. For maps – as apposed to real knowledge of the land – are to do with dominion. They’re literally reductionist: they reduce miles to centimetres, chatty and ineffable woods to splurges of green. And they give us the idea that we can fold up a landscape and stick it in our pocket. The land becomes about us. Maps are the worst example of what symbolising can do.
This is a book about being. Being a human.
It is a book that will NOT be everyone’s cup of tea to be sure.
But I loved it…. and it now sits top shelf with my other faves.
4 stars out of 5.
To get a better idea of what the book is about you can listen to this: