Dara McAnulty has the rare gift of evoking the natural world

Nature’s boy wonder: He’s autistic and only 17, but Dara McAnulty has the rare gift of evoking the natural world with all the power and beauty of Ted Hughes

  • Dara McAnulty, 17, from Northern Ireland, has penned a nature journal 
  • He details the seasons as he experiences them and the trustworthiness of nature
  • Naturalist who is on the autistic spectrum is known for running a popular blog

NATURE

DIARY OF A YOUNG NATURALIST   

by Dara McAnulty (Little Toller £16.99, 224pp)

Dara McAnulty is a brilliant young teenage naturalist from Northern Ireland who writes a popular blog about his sightings and adventures, and has also appeared on BBC’s Countryfile.

He’s on the autistic spectrum, and doesn’t so much coolly observe nature as passionately identify with it.

The ‘babble’ of social interaction, meanwhile — and especially the noisy, jostling, sometimes brutal world of school — he finds rather less appealing. ‘The bullies were powerful boys, popular, sporty, and lies tripped off their tongue like diamonds.’

Dara McAnulty, 17, (pictured) from Northern Ireland, journals the seasons as he experiences them in his first book, Diary Of A Young Naturalist

As you can see, he also writes like a poet.

All of this makes his first book, Diary Of A Young Naturalist, a nature journal like no other you’ve ever read.

I’m tempted to say there’s something ‘shamanistic’ about the way he sees the natural world, if it didn’t risk sounding a bit pseudo. But I can’t help thinking it all the same.

There really is something of that old American Indian ‘Brother Wolf, Sister Moon’ sensibility here: a feeling of magical kinship with other animals and plants and natural phenomena, although he also possesses a great store of detailed scientific knowledge, too.

This is no mere dreamer; and, like the American Indians, he’s no sentimentalist about nature either.

In the prologue he turns his eye on himself and his own family, by way of introduction. This is how he sees it: ‘I’m Dara, a boy, an acorn . . . Our home is crammed with books, skulls, feathers, politics, unbridled debates, tears, laughter and joy.’

His nine-year-old sister ‘can give you a multitude of insect facts, keeps pet snails and also fixes all the electrical equipment in the house’.

Dara examines the trustworthy and peaceful sanctuary that nature offers from the rest of the world. Pictured: A photo from Dara’s book

His brother Lorcan ‘is an adrenaline junkie . . . going through life with the energy of a neutron star’.

Then there’s Rosie, a rescue greyhound with severe flatulence and a brindle coat. ‘We call her the living cushion.

‘Not only is our family bound together by blood, we are all autistic, except Dad — he’s the odd one out. Together, we make for an eccentric and chaotic bunch. We are as close as otters and, huddled together, we make our way in the world.’

What a brilliant family portrait that is.

His journals take us through the seasons as he experiences them. In spring, ‘the air is as puffed out as the robin’s chest’. Tadpoles are ‘squiggly, squirming teardrops’, while seeing the year’s first dandelions ‘makes me feel like sunshine itself’. As he tries to explain: ‘I don’t have a joy filter.’

Nature offers a trustworthy and peaceful sanctuary from the rest of the world, and a calmative to his own adolescent emotions, which combine to feel like an all-out jangling bombardment of noise and light and distraction, leaving his ‘senses popping like corn kernels’. What he calls ‘being ambushed by the anxiety army’.

Dara reveals that his favourite places are Rathlin Island and the Mountains of Mourne, describing them as ‘our Narnia’. Pictured: A photo from Dara’s book

And so he escapes from his suburban home to nearby nature reserves — although as a cyclist, still too young to drive, he finds a whole lot more bullies on the roads. ‘You take your life into your own hands if you choose to cycle anywhere in Enniskillen.’

His favourite places are Rathlin Island and the Mountains of Mourne, ‘our Narnia. As time goes by, the Mournes and I will inhabit each other’.

The vast and inexhaustible refuge of nature is only enriched by his own impressive knowledge of flora and fauna, and his utterly original imagination.

All naturalists know that dragonflies have been around since the Carboniferous era, some 325 million years ago. But this is how Dara sees it: ‘Flickers of light dart before our eyes: dragonflies, their silken wings etched with maps of the Carboniferous (their wings spanned six feet when their ancestors flew with dinosaurs). ’

DIARY OF A YOUNG NATURALIST by Dara McAnulty (Little Toller £16.99, 224pp)

In autumn, the land is ‘in a state of slow withering and soft lullaby’, yet all the time unseen, ‘Life is connecting under our feet, mycelium strands interweave, bearing fruit from darkness.’

But it’s in autumn, too, that he witnesses a young mother, taking a moment out from staring at her phone, smacking a conker out of her little boy’s hand, saying ‘dirty’, and ‘hurls it away. The boy is crestfallen. A light goes out.’

He’s baffled at how so many people couldn’t care less about nature; about how we can be so hellbent on destroying the one thing that keeps us all living and breathing.

All of this raises an interesting question: does Dara live in a fantasy world of shamanistic reverie — or is he a down-to-earth realist? And maybe it’s the hard, noisy, ‘real’ world, he suggests, the world of business and politics and consumerism, which is in fact destroying us all with its life-devouring dreams?

It feels like a huge privilege to be allowed to see out of someone else’s eyes and experience their visionary view of the world so vividly for a few hours.

Like reading William Blake, or Ted Hughes, it really is a strange and magical experience. And this will surely be one of the most original and talked about nature books, or any books, this year.

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