Masai warriors stand on a rock in the Laikipia Plateau, Kenya. Given the option, I’d have chosen their life over mine, says Monbiot (© Ryan Heffernan)
The foraging had not gone well. We had hoped to find nettles, hawthorn buds, perhaps some spring mushrooms. But it was a cold March and scarcely anything had yet stirred. I pushed through a screen of branches and saw, beside a small stream, a dead muntjac: one of the Chinese barking deer that have proliferated in Britain since they were released by the Duke of Bedford in the early 20th century. Its eyes were bright; the body was warm. There was no wound or trace of blood.
I hesitated for a moment, surveying the sleek tube of its body, the small coralline antlers, the fangs protruding from its upper lip, the tiny hooves. Then I gathered up the ankles and heaved it onto my shoulders. The deer wrapped around my neck and back as if it had been tailored for me; the weight seemed to settle perfectly across my joints. As soon as I felt its warmth on my back, I was overwhelmed by a sensation—raw, feral, pungent—that I had never experienced before. My skin flushed, my lungs filled with air. I wanted to roar and thump my chest.
I experienced a similar rush of feeling some 15 years later, while hunting flounders in an estuary in Wales a couple of summers ago. I was wading with a trident through shallow water as the tide ebbed, hoping to catch the flatfish on their way back to the sea. As I stalked up a channel, my spear poised above the water, trying to detect the minute signs of fish buried in the sand, my concentration intensified until I felt as flexed and focused as a heron.
It is hard to explain what happened next, but I was suddenly transported by the thought—the knowledge—that I had done this before. I do not believe in reincarnation, or in the persistence of a soul after the death of the body. Yet I felt that I was walking through something I had done a thousand times, that I knew this work as surely as I knew my way home.
These experiences were both exhilarating and dismaying. The sensations were so powerful and so unfamiliar that I could neither dismiss…