Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

A stunning reflection by a 15 year old boy, over the course of a year, season by season into how nature provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to his own being.

nature writing Wainwright prizeDara McAnulty is autistic, as are his mother and two siblings, a beautiful advantage, because the family seem to understand exactly how to mitigate the intensity and lived experience of this characteristic.

As a result, they often escape their suburban habitat for the slightly wilder places within reach, places where whatever constraints they might be feeling inside, that might otherwise result in some kind of behavioural impulse, can be released into the conducive expanse of a living outdoors, an ecosystem, they feel at one with.

He reflects on the influence of both parents:

“Many people attribute my love of nature on him He’s definitely contributed deeply to my knowledge and appreciation, but I also feel the connection was forged while I was in Mum’s womb the umbilical still nourishing. Nature and nurture – it’s got to be a mix of both. It may be innate, something I was born with, but without encouragement from parents and teachers and access to the wilder places, it can’t bind to everyday life.”

Dara channels his passion for wildlife and nature into a series of journal entries, written with language that is beautifully descriptive and resonant, that conjures up exactly how it might feel like to be this young man, whose five senses are so intense, who wants to understand more, to do what he can to improve the state of our planet, its nature.

On dandelions:

yellow dandelion flower

Photo by Daniel Absi on Pexels.com

“…I love dandelions. They make me feel like sunshine itself, and you will always see some creature resting on an open bloom, if you have a little patience to wait. This vital source for all emerging pollinators is a blast of uplifting yellow to brighten even the  greyest of days. It stands tall and proud, unlike all  the others opening and swaying in the breeze. The odd one out.”

Spring ends with the announcement that the family will move to another village to be closer to a different school and for their father to be in closer proximity to Belfast. At first disillusioned, Dara soon learns there is a forest nearby and a whole new ecosystem to explore and learn. The move marks a significant change in his experience of the school system, he begins to thrive.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort. What’s a lot more effort, though, is the work Mum did and does still, so light-heartedly. She tells us it’s because she knows. She knows the confusion. That’s why she and Dad will be doing the worrying about moving, and why Mum will be doing all the planning and mind-mapping, and will somehow know how everything fits together. I’m lucky, very lucky.”

He asks himself constantly, is this enough; to observe, to spend time in nature, to speak, to write?

If this was all he ever did, it is already enough, but it is clear he is destined to do more.

Silverbar, the Sanderling

A sanderling shore bird

Observing the sanderling, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s excellent Under the Sea-Wind, where she too brings this bird to life:

I reach for my binoculars and see them: sanderlings, about thirty, moving erratically yet with powerful purpose. Blurred black legs. A flash of beak prodding the sand. Sand ploughman. They whirl with the waves, never stopping. Scurrying. Rushing. Every movement too fast for me to focus on. Dazzlers of the shore.

Sanderling plumage is snow-white and pewter-black, the crown darted with linear black-among-white. They come to winter in Ireland from the high Arctic, travelling nonstop for over 3,000 miles. Their movements are completely hypnotic, especially as I focus in one bird and observe how it moves relentlessly at speed between the waves and shoreline, sandpeckering as it goes, and repeating it all over again as the waves recede, over and over, over and over. What tenacity. I’m not sure how productive it all is, as they never stop for a second and must spend so much energy making each tack from wave to shoreline.

When he begins to doubt himself or feel overwhelmed by what he understands is happening to the environment, his ever patient, wise, knowing mother is there:

She also tells me that I need to hold on to grace and gratitude. ‘Hold them close’ she says. ‘And remember by writing down all the good things in life.’ She’s right of course, but it takes every muscle to agree.

A wonderful, inspirational book and journey to a few of the wildish places of Northern Ireland.

Loved it.

14 thoughts on “Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

  1. It’s a marvellous book isn’t it! I came across him well before the book was published when he began writing a nature blog. (He stopped the blog in order to write the book.) I was so impressed by him then. He is a remarkable young man with a remarkable family behind him. You just know that whatever path he chooses, he will do something special with his life.

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    • Marvellous indeed Sandra. And what a beautiful evolution from those family wanderings and observations, to the generosity of sharing his thoughts in a blog and the magic of it culminating into an award winning book. I quite understand the overwhelm that must have induced from time to time, as if adolescence wasn’t enough. Yes that continual inner listening and connection to nature will lead him towards whatever form it will take. The intention is clear.

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    • I seem to have missed him on Twitter or his blog, it was the nature writing prize that brought him to my attention and in particular a personal interest in reading literature from Northern Ireland, so a book that also travels it’s geography, and shares it in this way, is a rare gift indeed. His perspective deserves amplifying, and a book lends itself to quiet expression.

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      • That was a lovely moment when he won the prize though sadly it brought abuse along with the kudos. But it did bring attention to what he is saying and how he says it which will hopefully will make a few more people more aware of what’s going on right in front of our eyes.

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  2. A truly inspirational figure indeed! That passage about ‘not looking autistic’ is so telling, highlighting the prejudices that Dara and others have to deal with on a regular basis…

    He’s also written Wild Child, a children’s book about various accessible ‘habitats’ in the natural world e.g. gardens, wooodlands, river banks etc. It’s a lovely book, both engaging and educational, with lots of info on what to look for / things to do to support nature.

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    • So many wear their ‘extra’ or ‘out of’ ordinariness on the inside, and have to deal with a society that behaves as if there is only one standard for being. I love that he has found a way to share a little of his extra ordinariness and that of nature together. That in itself is a sign of some progress. I hope his example (and that of his family) inspires others to shine their light a little brighter.

      Thanks for mentioning the Wild Child book, that sounds like a wonderful read as well!

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