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A Sharp Eye in the Wild

Seán Lysaght

Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty, Little Toller Books, 224 pp, £16, ISBN: 978-1908213792

Dara McAnulty first came to public notice about three years ago as a blogger writing about nature and conservation from his home in Fermanagh; at the time he was particularly keen on protecting hen harriers, a species of special concern both in Ireland and the UK because of development and persecution pressures. Since that time, Dara has become an important voice for his generation as a teenager who is passionate about the natural world and its place in the well-being of our society generally. His activism on behalf of the living world has coincided with a wider youth movement, including “Extinction Rebellion” and the Schools Strike for Climate Action; in partnership with the broadcaster Chris Packham, he has worked to highlight the role of nature in mental health for young people, not just for those with autism, a condition he shares with his mother and his two siblings.

All of these interests and issues come together in Dara’s first book, Diary of a Young Naturalist, which is now published by Little Toller Books of Dorset, a company specialising in writing about the natural world. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the Diary was timely, given the pressures faced by our planet from climate change, extinction and degradation; but with current restrictions on travel and movement, and a new sense of the living world on our doorstep, this book carries a powerful message for our times.

The political arguments are clear, and powerfully articulated: after an Extinction Rebellion rally in London at which he was a speaker, Dara notes, “Our world is increasingly divided between attainment, materialism and self-analysis. We’re at a tipping point in the relationship we have with ourselves, each other and our world. A world which is so intricately connected, so interdependent, so intrinsically linked.” At this point, noting that the writer was fifteen when he wrote this, and has now just passed his sixteenth birthday, it is easy to indulge in a patronising round of congratulation for “one so young”. But Dara and others such as Greta Thunberg are steeled against this, and they demand a place at the table where policies and plans are implemented. “We hand over our hearts,” he writes, “beating on a platter, for nothing. At least nothing tangible.”

The passion and outrage that drive this writing are not general or undifferentiated but come from a deep and expertly focused relationship with nature, which in turn is memorably expressed. With a rare gift for recall, Dara describes seeing an otter on the Lagan in winter when he was just three, and being overcome by emotion at the beauty of its movement: “I see a rippling, unsettling the reflection of branches. Smooth back, black, slinking … Shadowy shape, otter, raising its head and swimming, and we see it so clearly, there are no other people. Just stillness and otter, otter and stillness … This is how the sobbing starts, such great sobbing. Winter brings it out, the clearness of everything, the seeing without seeking.”

Given his devotion to living creatures, and his autism, Dara was a victim of bullying in the past and gives a candid account of the impact of this cruelty. Some of his mental health challenges have been exacerbated by the brew of social media, especially following television appearances, but he can usually rely on the natural world and his loving family to get him through bouts of severe self-doubt. During one particularly acute spell of self-scrutiny, he writes about returning to Murlough Bay: “I spotted a six-spot burnet moth on the devil’s bit scabious, its red-and-black wings resting on purple, a clash of the gothic with the royal. These tiny wild things lit up the overcast day, and as I lay on the sand, listening to the waves, I promised not to lose myself again.”

In the company of his family and with the guidance of his father, who is a professional biologist, Dara has acquired a detailed knowledge of the world he celebrates. Following a move from Fermanagh to Castlewellan in Co Down, the family go exploring: at Bloody Bridge – the scene of gruesome events during the 1641 rebellion – Dara sits near the sea on a granite outcrop of “Silurian hornfels” and then goes exploring rock pools with his brother and sister. “Hermit crabs scuttle between our submerged feet. I feel the tickle of a goby and blenny as beadlet anemones wave their antennae, scarlet with beads of blue around the inner edge – I touch them, feeling a stickiness and a slight sting.” The precision of his descriptions and naming is a delight, and it demonstrates the point the author of this diary makes as he pleads with educators: “Provide opportunity and space for us to explore, and give us an education system that acknowledges the natural world as our greatest teacher.”

The accurate naming of plants and animals combines with moments of great writerly insight. In an autumn wood, “A quick flurry of wind unlatches leaves from a beech tree.” A goshawk chick on a nest in Scotland “looks like an autumn forest rolled in the first snows of winter”. A grey wagtail on a local river “bows to the rocks before disappearing into the undergrowth, like a river nymph”. At the top of a hill in the Mournes, “carved-out granite chutes lead deep into the tors’ heart”.

As if all that weren’t enough, Dara McAnulty handles history and folklore with enviable maturity: I found it especially gratifying to be in the company of an Irish naturalist who is at ease within common parameters, where the focus on wildlife can also embrace a wider culture, as we see on his visits to Glendalough and to Ballynoe Stone Circle, a so-called “thin place” where the natural and the spiritual worlds come close.

The diary charts the writer’s movement with his family away from some difficult times earlier in his life, to a new home in the cradle of the Mourne Mountains. He has vowed “to stand proud” against the bullies; at the end he declares, with a Joycean flourish, “My heart is opening. I’m ready.” Indeed. And in that future space Dara McAnulty will find many readers for this outstanding, landmark book.

1/7/2020

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