Book Review: Diary of a Young Naturalist

“Maybe, if we bang our heads against a brick wall for long enough, it will crumble and fall. And maybe the rubble can be used to rebuild something better and more beautiful, enabling our own wildness. Imagine that”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty, is a year long account of the fourteen year old author’s life. It offers an inspiring and uplifting view of nature focusing on flora and small fauna – the insects and birds essential for balance in the ecosystem of which humans are a part. More than this though, Dara’s musings and recollections provide an eye-opening window into the challenges faced by a teenager on the autism spectrum. He must find a way to survive an intensity of roller coaster emotions as he strives to navigate society and raise awareness of the issues he is passionate about.

Dara was born and raised in Northern Ireland where he still lives with his family. The book opens at the spring equinox – his dad’s birthday. The family home is in Fermanagh. Their best days are spent exploring the gardens, parks and wild places in their vicinity. Dara is often halted by the wonder of a bird or insect he spots, pausing to observe its beauty and activity. He writes with knowledge and appreciation, drawing the reader in and bringing alive the detail of each encounter.

These moments carry the author through the black periods that assail him, when the noise of the structured world he is forced to inhabit drowns out the good he finds in more natural wildernesses. He has been cruelly and violently bullied by his peers at school. Although eager to learn, the setup of modern classrooms and teaching methods – the way he is expected to behave – leave him exhausted. His family are tuned in to his predicament and offer strategies for coping. The constant vigilance required affects them all but is deeply appreciated by the author.

At home he has the understanding and unfailing support of his family. Still though, he must find ways to survive inside his own head. A crisis occurs later in the year when the family move to the other side of the country. The land that lies below the peaks of the Mourne Mountains offers Dara many new and exciting opportunities for exploration but such a radical change is anxiety inducing, especially the change of school.

Each diary entry recounts the birds and tiny beasts that entrance and calm the author. Described in wondrous detail – in language that captivates with its colour – creatures that many would try hard to avoid are made delightful as well as exciting. Alongside this positive energy is Dara’s despair at how modern farming practices denude vital habitats. Humans strive for efficiency and tidiness over more nature friendly practices.

As well as the wild places visited, Dara has an interest in conservation. His growing on-line presence has drawn attention and support from some well known names in this arena. Dara is invited to take part in bird ringing – I was interested that this form of human intervention sat well with him. Other invitations include participation in meetings and rallies. He recognises that, as a young naturalist with a popular following, certain opportunities – especially those attended by politicians – are about using him rather than taking notice of what he has to say.

The writing flows, the structure enabling both brief dips in and longer reading periods. The natural world presented is inspiring but what strengthens the message presented is its honesty – how Dara notices and is affected by his varied encounters. This is a book with the potential to change attitudes and behaviour. A vital read for both young people and adults.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller Books.

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