“This damn book.”
That’s how author Keggie Carew begins the introduction to her latest book, Beastly: A New History of Animals and Us. It’s also how her editor, Simon Thorogood, begins his address to the still-quieting crowd gathered in the back of Marylebone’s Daunt Books on a brilliantly sunny but brisk April evening.
Supporters, publishers, friends and family gather beneath the mezzanine balcony, wine glasses in hand and surrounded by books, to listen to Carew share the painstaking and ambitious process of writing a book about humanity’s relationship with nature. It all began with a photograph of a girl and a large boar, unspooling a gargantuan story of our complex relationship with the animal world. It was an idea that wouldn’t leave Carew alone – the damn book.
A non-fiction book charting back across 40,000 years of history, Beastly tells individual and intimate stories to explore the larger story of our relationship with animals. At once about humanity, psychology, history and anthropology, it is also about the importance of the other life forms that we share this planet with. And chiefly, where exactly our interactions with Earth’s billions of other non-human inhabitants have gone wrong: we think of ourselves as separate from the natural world around us. Carew shows us what it means to be human, what it means to be animal, and what it means to be both.
Towards the end of Carew’s speech, she mentions the book by name and immediately a small black terrier brought as a plus-one by one of the guests lets out a volley of triumphant barks. The crowd breaks into disbelieving laughter. Is he remembering his beastly, wild, wolf-relatives? Is he, too, reflecting on his animal nature?
Five years ago, Keggie Carew, author of Dadland and Quicksand Tales, was sent a photograph by her agent. The photograph showed a large boar, standing on its hind legs and leaning against a dining table. Opposite the boar sat a young woman. Behind both of them, there was a candelabra with the candles lit, and a clock striking 12. Carew was instantly fixated by what the photograph carried beneath its surface. A moment captured in time that implicitly held an enormity of weight and intrigue within it: humanity’s relationship with other animals.
Our diminishing connection to the natural world and negative impact on the environment around us has become hard to dispute, with research suggesting that we have become increasingly disconnected from nature over the last 70 years, while the current extinction rate of species is estimated to be hundreds or even thousands of times higher than the natural baseline rate. Currently, an estimated 15,000 species face extinction – though this number is hard to predict with any accuracy because many endangered species are likely to vanish before we even knew they existed.
Carew knew that grappling with statistics, global extinctions and environmental degradation in the abstract is unlikely to do anything other than foster despair. But she also knew that there were countless individual stories of hope, connection and awe waiting to be told.
“I was completely riveted by the photograph of the boar and the girl,” Carew told me via a videocall several weeks before the book launch. She was calling from her Wiltshire home, where she and her husband run a rewilding project, Underhill Wood. “And that set me on a journey to tell the big story happening within the photograph through a myriad of other small, intimate stories.”
Carew thinks of her writing as a Trojan horse; sneaking in the gritty, tough stuff buried in a deftly told story – which is, after all, the best way to alter mindsets. “A book can be as big as you want it to be,” she said. She is slight, wearing a thick jumper and glasses, and is framed by two paintings hanging on the wall behind her. Her warmth and passion translate easily even across the grainy Zoom call.
“That set me on a journey to tell the big story happening within the photograph through a myriad of other small, intimate stories.”Keggie Carew
“Yet it also has an intimacy with the reader, where they can take the book anywhere and have this sort of private, whispery conversation that the writer will never even know about.”
The past week had seen me folded into my sofa late into the evening, deep in my own internal discussion with the events unfolding within my copy of Beastly. For example, Carew unfolds the tale of a young elephant gifted to London Zoo by the Kenyan government in the late 1960s. The two-year-old was put in a concrete pen within Regent’s Park, shut off from the rest of the world and far, far away from any other elephants.
It is difficult to imagine being unaffected by the unbearable loneliness of such a social creature, isolated from her fellow kind and prevented from the simplicity of touch, connection and companionship. Depressed and alone, Pole Pole’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, and she was euthanised after it was concluded she had ‘lost the will to live’.
I understood what Carew meant about the power that stories can yield. They curl around minds and chip away at long-held beliefs even after the pages are shut. No one is likely to shed tears over a bar chart or set of statistics, but Pole Pole’s story is an emotional punch to the gut, as well as a testament to a much larger systemic issue with the way that we think of animals’ needs for socialisation and company.
It is difficult to imagine being unaffected by the unbearable loneliness of such a social creature, isolated from her fellow kind and prevented from the simplicity of touch, connection and companionship.
But while Beastly is a book abundant with stories about animals, it is also a book about human nature. The Darwinian theory of humanity’s inherent competitiveness has become increasingly contested in recent years, with philosophers, anthropologists and psychologists coming to the similar conclusion that we’re not predestined to be selfish.
Carew’s book treads similar ground to this debate, peering into what it actually means to be human. “There is definitely a tension about what we are,” she said when I asked about the ‘selfish gene’. “Are we compassionate and cooperative, or fundamentally violent and selfish?”
“We are both incredibly cooperative and incredibly competitive; that’s the tension. We’re all vulnerable, flawed, interesting and dangerous at the same time.”Keggie Carew
After all, as Beastly points out, we are still flesh-and-bone animals despite our humanity. We are born, we grow, feel pain, eat, get sick, play, die. “We are both,” Carew told me. “Incredibly cooperative and incredibly competitive; that’s the tension. We’re all vulnerable, flawed, interesting and dangerous at the same time.”
One way that our cooperative-competitive tension makes itself known is in our perception of the need to ‘conquer’ nature. It’s easy to trace this belief back thousands of years, as Beastly skillfully does, but the longevity of the idea does not assure its validity. Rather, the overwhelming majority of humanity’s history in the animal world belies it.
When asked about humanity’s sense of competition with animals and nature, Carew believes that there is change on the horizon. “It’s quite deeply embedded in our psyche, but many people are now trying to understand and correct it. The best way to do that is through education; if people don’t understand something, how can they care about it?”
And it’s true – historically, we have lived side-by-side with far bigger animals than the irritating foxes who keep raiding the bins, or the disease-ridden pigeons roosting on the roof. Carew believes the shift in mindset goes back to the advent of agriculture, when instead of going out and hunting or foraging, we began keeping livestock. And then farming crops. And then building villages. And it was all ours – not the wolves’, or the lynxes’. Our flock needed protecting, and we were quite literally the shepherds.
“We thought of that as stealing,” Carew said, of animal predators killing domesticated livestock. “The moment we started having property, whether it was farms, crops or food, we had to protect it. And so we began eradicating the animals that posed a threat.”
As the now famous example of Yellowstone National Park demonstrates, the removal of a native species is not an isolated event. It has far reaching consequences, disturbing the delicate millennium-old balance of an ecosystem.
But Carew has a lot of hope for the future of our relationship with our fellow animals and our shared planet – and it starts with learning more about the world that we live in. “The more you know, the more fascinating it is,” she said. “That’s what I really wanted to do with this book – to light the touchpaper about how mind-blowing and awe-inspiring it all is.”
One of those mind-blowing stories unfolded within Beastly is that of an injured stork found by a retired janitor in Croatia. She had been shot and could no longer fly. The janitor named her Malena and made her a winter nest in his garage and a summer nest on his chimney. After ten years, a male stork landed in Malena’s summer nest and soon she was keeping a nest of eggs warm while her new mate, Klepetan (so-named by the janitor), flew off to bring her food.
For over ten summers, Klepetan returned to Malena … Carew is right – the more you find out, the more it becomes truly “mind-blowing”.
After the chicks were raised, Klepetan flew 13,000 kilometres to South Africa for the winter. The janitor and Malena waited in Croatia for him. And sure enough, the following spring, he returned. Each year, Klepetan and Malena’s story spread across Croatia, and a growing number of Croats began to await his return. A livestream video was eventually set up for people to join the janitor and Malena in their nervous anticipation for his return from a journey that sees 2 million storks killed each year by hunters. For over ten summers, Klepetan returned to Malena. Together they raised 66 chicks.
Carew is right – the more you find out, the more the natural world around us is revealed to be truly “mind-blowing”.
“The little things add up. Nature can be destroyed very easily, but it can also recover incredibly quickly.”Keggie Carew
When I asked Carew what her favourite animal was, I was only mildly embarrassed by my playground question. After all, that’s part of the point – we should embrace the wide-eyed fascination inspired by nature, the child-like love for particular animals and the sincere excitement over just how much abundance there is out there.
For Carew, the wolf gets top spot. “They are such amazing creatures but have been so misunderstood and vilified over the centuries. And yet they’re still here – and for many of us, our best friends are descendants of the wolf.”
Our impact on the world around us has grown immensely from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle we had 40,000 years ago. Perhaps what it means to be human has even changed; we have removed ourselves from the animal world. But Carew thinks that may not be the point anymore: “We’re very interested in what it means to be human when in fact one of the problems that we have is that we’re always looking inwards.”
If we just begin to look out a little more, we will start to notice the incredible mosaic of life and stories surrounding us – and involving us. We may have begun to think of ourselves as separated from nature, but the more we look, the more we will see that we are an integral part of the same system that elephants, storks, wolves and boars are also a part of. It’s in our interest – as well as theirs – to repair our connection with the natural world, and remind ourselves that it’s not just the other animals that stand to lose out from environmental decline. It’s our home too.
Carew is acutely aware of our detrimental impact on the planet, but she is also filled with hope for a revival in our connection to nature: “The great thing about taking action is that it actually does make a difference. The little things add up. Nature can be destroyed very easily, but it can also recover incredibly quickly.”
At the end of her speech at the book launch, Carew thanks the crowd for their support and attendance. Applause erupts, and for the final time, the small black terrier, descendant of ancient wolves long ago, provides what we can hope are several barks of approval from the non-human constituency of Marylebone.