Friday, November 17, 2023

Q&A with Keggie Carew



Keggie Carew is the author of the new book Beastly: The 40,000-Year Story of Animals and Us. Her other books include Dadland. She lives in Wiltshire, England.


Q: What inspired you to write Beastly?


A: Well, the news was bad - the climate crisis, pollution, pandemics, biodiversity loss, soil degradation. We were in trouble and we were being told but we weren’t listening.


Wherever I looked, all roads led back to the same thing: our relationship with the planet’s other inhabitants - the removal of their homes, their prospects, their food.


Animals run the ecosystems we depend on, gardening the green and blue planet, replenishing the nutrients, maintaining the world that gives us oxygen, food, clean water, taking away the CO2 - for free!


So how come we didn’t know this? When we did… I wanted to unravel how we got here. Then I was sent an extraordinary photograph of a girl breaking bread with an enormous boar in a dining room, it was like a parable and I couldn’t turn back.


So Beastly is that journey into the splendour, mystery, and genius of animals and the long, complicated story of our interactions with them as humans.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: For five years I read a mountain of books, papers and journals - all aspects of this mad subject, history, science, religion, and culture. I watched a million films and videos. I travelled to see animals in the wild. I was searching for the most revealing stories and tiniest details to tell the bigger picture.


I was constantly amazed. How about Dicrocheles mites who live in the ears of noctuid moths. They break through the tympanic membrane which deafens the moth’s ear, but they never migrate to the other ear. That would not do for a moth who needs to detect the echolocation calls of hunting bats, nor for the mites if the moth becomes prey.


So, in the never-ending wonder of the world, the mites send scouts across to the clear ear to lead any stray wayfarers back home. Humans could take a lesson from these mites.

Q: A review of the book in The Guardian, by Rohan Silva, said, “Beastly is Keggie Carew’s messy but heartfelt account of the environmental catastrophe unleashed by this barmily Trumpian idea of Aristotle’s that we’re somehow superior to the rest of nature.” What do you think of that description?


A: Hmm. Well, of course I get stuck on the word “messy.” One man’s “messy” is another’s “cunningly structured book” (Perspective Magazine)! Beastly is unorthodox, irreverent, fiery, passionate, it leaps around the world (it has to), it zooms in to tiny details then pans out to a wider lens.


Silva’s review was actually very positive, it obviously made him think about things he had never thought about. And yes, one of our problems is the mindset of being at the pinnacle of creation. When the point is we are part of the life web, nothing can survive on its own. Life needs life to survive, and everything is interconnected.


Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to human-animal coexistence?


A: There are many, many people devoting their lives to restoring the natural world, where they can. Returning native species and protecting habitats. Sadly, our leaders are not with the programme. And thank goodness we understand better the vital ecological roles of animals. 


However, we still underestimate their specific skills and intelligence, their feelings and emotional lives, and much of the fascinating glittering life pageant is lost on us.  Things are improving in places.  But we need to hurry up.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on something about human freedom and captivity, but I don’t want to say too much and jinx it.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There is typically 10 - 20 times more insecticide present in human breast milk than in cow’s milk.  How about that!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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