Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
When the Wainwright Prize longlists (for writing on UK nature and global conservation themes) were announced in early June, Dara McAnulty broke two records as the first nominee from Northern Ireland and the youngest ever. Now 16, McAnulty is the UK’s answer to Greta Thunberg: a leader in the youth environmental movement, an impassioned speaker on climate change and the love of nature, and a proud member of the autistic community. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a wonderfully observant and introspective account of his fifteenth year: of disruptions – moving house and school, of outrage at the state of the world and the individual and political indifference that has set it on a destructive course, of the complications of being autistic, but also of the joys of everyday encounters with wildlife.
The book opens late one March and ends precisely one year later, spanning from age 13 to nearly 15. McAnulty and his family – his father a conservation scientist; his mother and two younger siblings all autistic like himself – explore the nature reserves of Northern Ireland, including Rathlin Island, where they go for weekend trips. These are areas that are less well known to many in the UK, and I enjoyed reading about them. But lots of the experiences he has with nature could happen anywhere given the necessary interest, such as appreciating blackbird song, touching a woodlouse, collecting feathers, and keeping an eye out for fungi. “How could I feel lonely when there are such things?” he asks. “Wildlife is my refuge.”
Ever since Gilbert White chronicled the natural history of Selborne in the eighteenth century, keeping a dated journal of the wild world’s activity has been a way of marking annual rhythms. McAnulty loves the ritual of listening out for the first cuckoo of the year, visiting bluebell woods, and seeing the autumnal colour at Samhain (the Celtic New Year, celebrated on Halloween). “The ebb and flow of time punctuated by the familiar brings a cycle of wonder and discovery every year,” he writes, “just as if it’s the first time.”
The diary format encourages this sense of perspective. While McAnulty, something of a Twitter celebrity, gets many exciting opportunities over the course of the year – satellite tagging goshawks and golden eagles in secret locations in Scotland; reciting a poem at the People’s Walk for Wildlife in London, organised by Chris Packham; starting an eco club at his school; participating in the first Irish Extinction Rebellion gathering and the school strike – these big events alternate with routine moments of connection with the natural world.
McAnulty rightly suggests that daily zeal and attention might be just as important, or even as radical, as the major stuff. “Noticing nature is the start of it all. Slowing down to listen, to watch. Taking the time.” His bond with nature is straightforwardly joyous. “This is who I am. This is who we could be,” he thinks while tagging goshawk chicks. “I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them. Perhaps it’s a feeling of love, or a longing. … It is a rare feeling, a sensation that most of my life … doesn’t have the space for.” It is also the kind of enthusiasm that can be infectious, and not just for people his own age.
It’s easy to forget you’re reading a teenager’s work until he mentions studying, and especially the bullying that he experienced at previous schools. McAnulty took part in this year’s digital Hay Festival and was well spoken in conversation with science journalist Steve Silberman (the author of the autism-themed Wellcome Book Prize nominee Neurotribes), but his persecution by fellow students was one thing he was unable to talk about. In that interview and in the book, it’s a dark period he skims over. However, he does write of his frequent impatience, anxiety, and troubled thoughts, and brings up specific difficulties associated with autism, such as having to work harder to understand facial expressions and the nuances of conversations. McAnulty told Silberman that it took him years to figure out how and why humans do things, whereas he found the natural world much more predictable.
Silberman complimented McAnulty on his “incredibly lyrical” writing, noting that it counters the received wisdom that autistic people are literal-minded and incapable of humour or imagery. Indeed, the book is full of striking metaphors and unusual verb use: “A solitary gannet scythes the sky and its cantering cries synchronise with my heartbeat” and in a bird-colonized shrub beside his front door “it sounds like a brawl has broken out inside a Tudor inn.” It also regularly references Celtic mythology, which, McAnulty told Silberman, has been a way for him to understand human psychology. In the book, he describes myths as a different form of knowledge: “Science, yes, always science. But we need these lost connections, they feed our imagination … and remind us that we’re not separate from nature but part of it.”
Impressively self-aware, compassionate and righteous in his anger at unhelpful systems, McAnulty still responds to the world with awe and said this is something he wants to preserve – to keep asking ‘why?’ and not assume that he knows it all. Silberman attested that many of the great scientists, like his mentor, Oliver Sacks, have kept that childlike sense of wonder into adulthood.
Diary of a Young Naturalist more than earns the buzz it will attract for its author’s youth. Like Naoki Higashida’s books, it’s a valuable window into the autistic mind. “To play my part in fighting for the natural world, I must start by smashing stereotypes,” McAnulty writes. But it’s not just a notable work because of his age and autism; the genuinely excellent writing and passion for nature make this one of the standout UK nature books of the year and suggest that he has great things ahead of him.
(A note to add that small Dorset publisher Little Toller has done a beautiful job with the book, which is illustrated with black-and-white family photographs and a full-colour cover and map endpapers by Barry Falls. My copy arrived nestled in tissue within a cardboard parcel – great care has been taken at every step, from editing right through to shipping.)
Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer from Maryland, USA. She reviews memoirs for the Times Literary Supplement and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller Books, 2020). 978-1908213792, 224 pp., hardback.
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