ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Dara McAnulty’s Diary of Young Naturalist — a remarkable testament to love for the natural world and a key to finding a greater sense of living in and caring for our shared home.
2,800 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes
Dara McAnulty is one of the growing number of young people who, over the past few years, have helped transform the landscape of activism and creativity around biodiversity and climate, orientating us to face the crisis head-on. That this is also a crisis of consciousness is borne out by the everyday acts of concealment permeating our lives, erasing the natural world’s erasure; concealments that Dara resists and reveals. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a call to an awakening that draws on and activates powerful imagination, where nature also lives. “All birds live brightly in our imagination, connecting us to the natural world, opening up all kinds of creativity. Is this connection really diminishing to the point of return? I refuse to believe it. … Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!”
Dara, who is now seventeen, offers clear and powerful insights into the turning of a full year, his fourteenth. He moves family home to another part of Northern Ireland, changes school, and experiences his personal immersion in the natural world becoming also a collaboration with professional conservationists, a forging of friendships with other children as he introduces them to observations of nature, and an exposure to cultural movements and political activity — all the while deepening his own appreciation of his own nature.
“Autism makes me feel everything more intensely. I don’t have a joy filter. When you are different, when you are joyful and exuberant, when you are riding the crest of the everyday, a lot of people just don’t like it. They don’t like me. But I don’t want to tone down my excitement. Why should I?”
We should all tone up our excitement, learn to tune in to our innate connectedness with the rest of nature — experiencing the world as it is rather than the version we manufacture and sell ourselves. A living home rather than our disposable property.
For Dara, the world of people is so often one of overwhelming noise and chaos, without many of the filters the rest of society is accustomed to and orders itself through. But as this year progresses he discovers a changing sense of connection with others through the efforts he makes to bring nature closer to them.
The diary format is a perfect fit to a task that might itself overwhelm other approaches. It takes us forward with him through the seasons and the cycles of the year, while bringing everything back to his immersion in the animal, plant and insect life and to family. And it gives space for his evident understanding of the histories and mythologies of place that tie the personal to the landscape and the wide world, dissolving the distances between them.
A gentle force
Introducing each season with a brief essay gives Dara the opportunity to frame the smaller stories that a diary naturally focuses in on. His recordings, day-to-day, week-to-week, are a place from which he steps back into his own life to recall first experiences and steps out into our wider culture to demonstrate its astonishing ignorance of a nature that’s so immediate and alive to him. ‘If me,’ he seems to ask us, ‘then why not everyone?’
He begins with “life springing out everywhere … rippling excitement that never fades.” It’s in the richness of the blackbird’s notes he can always pick out, even in the most crowded springtime soundscapes: “the start of it all, the awakening of so much.” This began when he was three, lying in his parent’s bedroom while they slept, waiting for the dawn light and the birdsong. “It was the start of a fascination with the world outside of walls and windows. Everything in it pushed with a gentle force, it begged me to listen and to understand.” And his understanding grew to take in the world not just through direct experience and prolonged exposure on family trips, but through reading; “books helped bridge my blackbird dream. They connected me to the bird, physically.” The human world, by contrast, is noise and pain: “cars, voices, orders, questions, changes of expression, fast chatter that I couldn’t keep up with.”
In summer, sitting under an oak’s dappled light as ”the leaves whisper ancient incantations”, he understands the tree’s witnessing of long human and other time passing and how it continues to host and harbour abundant life into the future: “If only we could be connected in the way this oak tree is connected with its ecosystem.” Dara’s relationship with the natural world is rich, a joyous intensity leaping, flying and flowering from every page. But other people, as he learned early on, just seem to enjoy nature from a distance rather than to feed direct from the source, its restless energy. For many of us, the wild is lovely in the ‘right place’ but is a nuisance, a danger or an abomination whenever it interferes with the smooth orderliness of the human realm.
Autumn finds life in a “state of slow withering and soft lullaby” above ground, but mycelial interweaving and fruiting bursting up from beneath: “a hidden wonder web of connection” with an intoxicating smell. “And while the land breathes out, I breathe in deeply, covering the incoming dread of the newness to come. New school, new people, new navigations.” Dara’s life — the continual challenges of school and mismatched social expectations, a move away from the known and loved family home to the uncertainty of a new place in another part of the country — is a negotiation both of traumatic loss and the anticipation of loss and of unexpected gain. His growing confidence in the truth of writing, and of bringing his truths to others, powers this diary just as much as his undimmable love of nature and of its eroded but recoverable meanings for humans.
Winter and the clarifying absence of abundance that it brings with “drained days, submerged in grey and brown, a dripping watercolour … reveals contours and shape in the land … spires of bareness.” The season’s beauty is all its own but it shares a sense of change with spring and autumn. “Winter, for me, is now feeling like a time of growth, of contemplation, connection with our ancestors and those that have passed.” The growing darkness means more quietness; “I can hear so much more between … Winter brings it out, the clearness of everything, the seeing without seeking.”
Small pieces of hope
“It isn’t in my personality to go around regurgitating statistics about the horrors inflicted on the natural world, because they are outside of my experience. It fills me with despair and I want to do is bury my head.”
This is a book that offers another way to come to the truth of what is happening. Importantly — crucially — it shows what is possible through small but repeated acts of perfect observation of the here and now. And matches that with an acute sense of what will soon be gone if we don’t at last awaken to what’s at stake, what extinction means and what is required of us to slow and halt the collapse: to let the natural world breathe again and bring us back from the edge. Dara can spot the pattern in any field or wood or street, alert to what’s already hanging on that edge.
The pattern can be in small signs, on the human scale that so often tricks us into thinking that things are ‘not as bad as all that’, into accepting an unquestioning pleasure in the rarity of things that should not be rare at all. A more questioning stance to the small signs all around engages anger, rightly undermining our human-sized complacencies.
Their car stopped at the side of a road, everyone’s ears straining into the still countryside around them, Dara, sister, brother, mum and dad wait in vain for the creature they’ve been seeking. “Dad is about to hit the start button of the engine when the craking begins, clear and quaking as a ratchet. A corncrake. It sizzles against the bleating of lambs and moaning of cows, another wild song sacrificed to the agricultural soundscape.” Intensifying farming has disrupted a seasonal rhythm in the wild, erased it and with it the eggs of this once common bird that once nested amongst the crops. “The future of the species in this place, in any place, is broken. Gone. A human in the driving seat, of course. These days, just the male calls out to infinite skies. He crakes and keens with no mate to return the sound.” Dara experiences a painful division from his family at this point. Everyone else is taking pleasure in the sound “but in that moment their smiles make me want to scream. How can they? I don’t share in the joy.”
In another season, a winter gone awry, when a sudden warm spell “conjured up a patch of lesser celandine, unbelievably early. I couldn’t celebrate them. Not really. It was as if they were growing in the shadow of a planet that’s out of sync.” And, another season again, when storms topple trees on his street Dara sees that an oak “had fallen to expose its root ball, so tight and tangled that there couldn’t possibly have been any more space for life. It wasn’t the wind that toppled the oak, not really. Being confined in asphalt and under slabs, that’s what did it. When we strolled past on the way to school there were traffic cones all around it, but I stepped inside the space anyway and wondered if anyone saw me touch the bark. ‘Sorry,’ I said.”
This is a sensitivity to life and its conditions that should be a common trait. But, as Dara observes of the street scene, “the ripped-up human surfaces, all broken and jagged, spoke of people first, nature last.” He collects a handful of the acorns and pockets them to plant at home later, “like small pieces of hope … They may or may not make it, but fifty-fifty is enough and we should always take the chance.”
Hopes are easily crushed too. He watches a boy pick a conker from the earth and ease it from its spiked casing to see the shine on the “tiny globe of red-tinted light” — but when the boy is scolded for picking up something ‘dirty’, Dara sees a light go out. “The things grown-ups do without thinking. The messages they send angrily into the world. The consequences ricochet through time, morph, grow, shapeshift. What’s so wrong with a conker?” When the mother isn’t looking, Dara picks up another one and hands it to the boy.
“’Put it in your pocket,’ I say. ’It’s called a conker. It’s the seed of that horse chestnut tree.’… I hope it gets to stay with him, if not in his pocket then in his memory. I honestly cannot comprehend where this comes from, this fear, this disconnect.”
The disconnect is a result of the taming of land: as the land is unmade, so the people — a decline matching each to the other’s retreat from the wild. In a landscape of square, bright-green, high-yielding fields, “the views are good, yet when you think about what’s inside the view, all the wildlife it squeezes out, what we can see … begins to feel more grim and starts closing in.” He is writing of his own family when he says this is “why we seek wild places — places that aren’t really wild, but feel like wilderness to us” but is speaking also to a truth about how all our tamed natures feel the need to rebel too from time to time, to rattle the cage. That recognition can be the start of resistance, and small acts of rewilding ourselves as well as our surroundings. It’s the refusal of an impoverishment that is falsely packaged as ‘progress’.
Rebellion for the natural world
A family trip to Rathlin Island brings respite from some of the traumas. “A restful night’s sleep is not something I’m familiar with. I find it hard to process and phase out so much of our overwhelming world. The colours on Rathlin are mostly natural and muted in this early spring light, tones that are tolerable to me. Bright colours cause a kind of pain, a physical assault on the senses. Noise can be unbearable. Natural sounds are easier to process, and that’s all we hear on Rathlin. Here, my body and mind are in a kind of balance. I don’t feel like this very often.”
And with the natural world to the fore and all around, it also becomes easier to “start my new challenge of talking to people, interacting. Here, surrounded by this, it’s easier. I’m in my natural habitat, and sharing it all with others feels so good.” Later, on a trip to Scotland, he joins a conservation team to weigh, ring and tag goshawk chicks, “the whole operation mesmerising, this delicate interaction between birds and people.”
“Without realising it, I start talking to the people around me… I feel at ease. This is so rare. They aren’t teasing or confusing me. I ask questions which are given detailed, intelligent answers, and it feels as if I’ve been dipped in a golden light. This is what I want to do … This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them.”
As the year progresses, Dara starts to taste social media celebrity as his sharing of the naturalist life inspires others and he accepts invitations to speak at gatherings and events, battling with his feelings among other people. As more is asked of him, the sense grows of being an impostor — that his efforts are not enough — alongside anger that adults are taking the easy route of praising him rather than doing what they should for their own children. He asks himself repeatedly if his writing is enough, if awareness is enough, but when he returns to nature itself these questions disappear:
“Under dark skies, I feel completely unburdened of any doubts in my abilities to help our planet. Instead, I feel energised and ready. Sopping wet and cold and with chattering teeth, still giggling madly, I feel hope pouring in the rain. Being myself is enough.”
It’s a mark of his clarity and immediacy with prose; writing also, while never enough in itself, is a twin act of rebellion and celebration that brings writer and reader more access to nature. Writing — the act of writing from observation — is an active remembering, again and again bringing back to him places and experiences, crystallising their intensity and meaning. As he commits memory to paper he re-experiences the physicality of it all: “My hand touches moss, leaves my imprint. It’s as if I am back there still, with the small mass of the experience on my skin. … I feel transformed as I write myself back to the mountain, and every time I feel the vitality and beauty of nature.”
Meanwhile, in the tamed fields, something wild hangs on. It wheels over “one of the luminous fields, that tedious green sea, searching, searching and then suddenly drops, mantling its prey. That field just gave the buzzard food! I bow my head and smile.”
Dara asks himself, and us: “Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion?” Yes.
Find out more
Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist has won numerous awards since its hardback publication in the UK by Little Toller Books (and in paperback by Penguin – see below). It is published in the USA by Milkweed Editions. I previously reviewed Milkweed’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush – see Rising — Endsickness and Adaptive Thinking.
You can find Dara on Twitter @NaturalistDara and read more at Naturalist Dara, where you can also watch his 2017 Springwatch Unsprung film for BBC Springwatch. The Milkweed Editions page includes short films of Dara reading from and talking about the book.
The title for this post? In a nod to Dara’s “Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!” and to Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, this from ‘Gates of Eden‘ on Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:
Relationships of ownership
They whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly
And wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.