“I have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world.”Dara McAnulty,2020
Diary of a Young Naturalist chronicles the turning of 15-year-old Dara McAnulty’s world. From spring and through a year in his home patch in Northern Ireland, Dara spent the seasons writing. These vivid, evocative and moving diary entries about his connection to wildlife and the way he sees the world are raw in their telling.
Diary of a Young Naturalist portrays Dara’s intense connection to the natural world, and his perspective as a teenager juggling exams and friendships alongside a life of campaigning. ‘In writing this book,’ Dara explains, ‘I have experienced challenges but also felt incredible joy, wonder, curiosity and excitement. In sharing this journey my hope is that people of all generations will not only understand autism a little more but also appreciate a child’s eye view on our delicate and changing biosphere.’
One of the great ironies about the battle to tackle the impact of climate change is how these decisions rest in the hands of politicians, who most likely will not be around when the full force is felt. In contrast, the voices of those who will feel its greatest impact and be left to pay the price and clear up the mess, are sidelined, disparaged and ignored. Increasingly the call for change is being taken up and being voiced by young campaigners like Dara McAnulty. In his book, Diary of a Young Naturalist, McAnulty describes the deep connection that he has with nature and the importance that it plays in his life and he laments the devastating impact that development and progress have had on the natural world.
“nowhere escapes human intervention. There is loss everywhere. Loss of habitat, loss of species and ways of life.”
“Our exposure to wildlife and wild places has been robbed by modernity and ‘progress’. Our pathways for exploration have been severed by development and roads and pollution.”
From a very early age, Dara discovered the beauty and wonder of nature and was inspired to ask the question “Why?” As our cities have expanded, devouring swathes of nature in their path, and the rural exodus has increased pace, it is this sense of wonder and connection with nature that has been lost. Yet it plays such a pivotal role in Dara’s life, not just as an intellectual passion, but also as a counterbalance to the stress and anxieties of life. Numerous scientific studies are discovering the same thing – that an intimate relationship with nature is critical to our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.
In his plea for the preservation of nature, McAnulty pointedly notes the double standards and power imbalance that allow the wholesale destruction of nature to continue.
“Globally, we have lost sixty per cent of our wild species since 1970. And it’s my generation that is labelled ‘apathetic’, ‘self-indulgent’, ‘less-focused’! Whereas the adults, who are actually in control of our access to wildlife…carry on making decisions and spending public money in conflict with nature.”
Dara writes so beautifully about the wonder and rhythms of nature, it is easy to forget he was only 15 when he first put words to paper, but his diary is so much more than just a passionate plea for the environment. He also has much to say about autism, education and the impact of bullying. As Dara notes at the beginning of his book, his entire family, except for his dad, are all on the spectrum. It is just beautiful to see the way that this family wholeheartedly accept and support each other as unique individuals. Dara makes some really interesting points on two aspects for which people on the spectrum often experience criticism: “obsessions” and “not looking autistic.” It’s quite funny how people will frame something they do not understand in negative terms as a way of justifying their exclusion of those who are different. As Dara explains about those so-called “obsessions”…
“It really is not an obsession, though. It’s not dangerous, quite the opposite. It’s liberating and essential to the workings of my brain. It calms and soothes: gathering information, finding patterns, sequencing and sorting out is a muscle I must flex. I prefer the word passion. Yes! And it’s absolutely essential that we get to follow our passions.”
And as for “not looking autistic”…what does that even mean?
“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.”
I think Dara is an incredibly brave writer. As he reveals some of the truths of what it means to be autistic, he exposes the impact of bullying on his life, an experience that is just all too common for people on the spectrum. He asks the question: How can people be so cruel? And we wonder the same. What is it about people that they feel the need to ridicule, torment and physically abuse those who are different, who wear their heart on their sleeve, and find joy in the wonder of nature. Dara is such a beautiful soul, it is painful to read about the cruelty of others.
“It’s difficult to explain the weight the bullies have left over the years. I’m marked by them. I don’t want to be. Without realising when it’s happening, I am consumed, drawn under. It eats away my joy.”
The world is slowly coming to accept and appreciate the gift of autism and the unique perspective and abilities of those on the spectrum, but as many parents know all too well, the education system lags well behind. Autism and adolescence can be a toxic combination and even highly intelligent learners like Dara can fail to thrive.
“Schools can be extremely bad places to learn if you’re autistic…hoops must be jumped through…all the technical advances humankind has made…yet the way we’re educated has stayed more or less the same…Conformity. Obedience. Duty.”
“I really want to learn. But the learning is so flat and uninspiring. The apathy of the surroundings is intolerable. The things we’re learning as captivating as a dripping tap, while outside the world is so much easier to condense, to understand.”
One of the most inspiring things about Dara McAnulty is that, despite the bullying, despite the failure of the education system to support and engage diverse learners, and despite the devastation that humanity has unleashed on its own environment, he still experiences joy and inspires hope. And he demonstrates a wisdom well beyond his years.
“Nature is constantly surprising. Only by looking can we challenge our own prejudices, clearing them out, and making way for possibilities.”
The Gaia Reading Challenge is hosted by Sharon from Gum Trees and Galaxies. The challenge is not onerous – simply read at least one book, fiction or non-fiction, with an environmental theme. Sharon has even kindly organised a little challenge card if you are interested. You can read about the Gaia challenge here.
Diary of a Young Naturalist has been one of the best books that I have read this year, and I heartily thank Sharon for her generous loan. As I said before, it is hard to believe that Dara was only 15 when he penned these words, chronicling his thoughts and experiences over the seasons of one year. He is an incredibly gifted writer and I certainly hope that he will continue writing, advocating and campaigning for the protection and conservation of the natural world. I will leave the last words to Dara as he extends a call to action and for hope.
“We all have a place in this world, our small corner. And we must notice it, tend to it with grace and compassion….But is this enough? Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion? I don’t know but smile anyway because with each passing day I am feeling lighter.”