When everyday life feels like a whirlwind, nature can be a lifeline. For Irish teenager Dara McAnulty, nature is a source of constant, wild wonder. He shares this in his book, Diary of a Young Naturalist.
We all know the feeling of escape and solace that nature can bring. But few feel it as keenly as Dara McAnulty. For Dara, nature is one of the few places where he doesn’t have to use up all of his energy filtering out the input that wreaks havoc with his autism. In connecting with nature, he can connect with who he is and keep himself grounded when the “anxiety army,” as he describes it, comes marching in.
But if you thought nature for this teenager was all about quiet solitude, think again. Dara’s vivid descriptions are bursting with the colours, smells and sounds that reflect the “unfettered joy” he feels when he’s outside.
The air hums with bees and dragonflies. An inquisitive woodlouse explores his finger. And there are birds – countless varieties. Through Dara, we meet them all, as he greets his trusted friends: red kites, razorbills, eider ducks and buzzards, robins and a solitary gannet. There’s a thrush playing “hopscotch in the snow”, and the “the click-clacking of a stonechat”. It’s as if the pages are not big enough to contain the richness of all he sees, hears and touches.
“Skylarks are our Sunday choir as we walk out west, the landscape our place of worship”
Great nature writing like this is timeless, but this book feels particularly pertinent right now. The fear and anxiety Dara describes are feelings we can all recognise. Especially in the past year, when we have become cut off from those around us. And, as Dara reveals, appreciating nature and all the benefits it brings is the first step in protecting it.
Out on a hike with his family, or out on his own in field or forest, he celebrates the life surrounding him as something sacred. This is his religion: “Skylarks are our Sunday choir as we walk out west, the landscape our place of worship, as it always is.” Even wildlife becomes saintly, as a sunbeam breaks through clouds and “spotlights the buzzard with a halo”.
“We are in the other world. No cars, no people. Just wildlife and the magnificence of nature”
While daily suburban life seems to be full of disappointments, nature remains a reward, and one Dara cherishes. Especially the show she puts on for him on his birthday: “After dinner, song bursts from every corner of the sky and we stop to listen in the twilight. Isolating each and every melody, I feel suddenly rooted. Skylark spirals. Blackbird harmonies. Bubbling meadow pipits. The winnowing wings of a snipe. And always the sound of seabirds. We are in the other world. No cars, no people. Just wildlife and the magnificence of nature.”
By shaping these moments into words, Dara lets us in on his intimate relationship with the living ecosystem around him. And it is in his passion for nature that he learns to speak out for what is worth conserving, despite the ‘brain fog’ such social interaction would normally bring.
He starts an eco group at school and meets like-minded people he can talk to. Greta Thumberg starts following him on social media. He is invited to speak at an environmental march in London.
In 2020 he won the Wainwright Prize for UK nature writing with this diary, after being the youngest author to be shortlisted for the award. Had he listened to the teacher who once told him he’d never be able to string a paragraph together, that might not have happened.
Instead he has taken the time to pursue his passion. “You will always see some creature resting on an open bloom,” Dara writes, “if you have a little patience to wait.”