Diary Of A Young Naturalist

Dara McAnulty

Little Toller, £16

“We watch in collective wonder,” Dara McAnulty writes at one point, “as countless silver Y moths feast on the purple blooms. Some rest, drunk with nectar, before refilling, whirling and dancing in constant motion; even at rest their wings are quivering like leaves in a storm.”

It’s not hard to see why Radio 4 made this their Book Of The Week, or why so many people, from Chris Packham to Robert Macfarlane, are raving about the charged, lyrical and transporting voice of a 16-year-old boy. McAnulty is an extraordinary writer, and every page of this book thrums with life and feeling, every paragraph seems like some bud coming into eloquent flower, whether in his descriptions of, or his stories of what it is like for him to experience this world as an autistic teenager – he was diagnosed at the age of five, and says that all of his family, save from his dad, are autistic.

He provides testimony to how noisy and overwhelming the environment of a school is, compared with that of nature. “Outside the world is so much easier to condense, to understand. You can focus in on one thing: a flower, a bird, a sound, an insect. School is the opposite. I can never think straight. My brain becomes engulfed by colour and noise and remembering to be organised. Ticking things off brain-lists. Always trying to hold in the nervous anxiety. To keep myself together."

McAnulty is so smart and knowledgeable, he makes you want to clap for young naturalists, not just him but all the other children and teens like him, who understand so much about the living world around them. But there’s a story here too, of the wrench of leaving a place, a long-known natural environment and having to move to another side of the country of leaving his beloved woodland of Big Dog. On his last visit to the forest he feels the ecstasy of spotting an osprey, but also the sense of imminent loss, a sudden “deep grief”. It’s a story of intense attachment to nature, to the life of a place.

“I breathe in all the memories and feel swollen with emotion,” he writes. “The greenfinches have just returned, alongside a charm of goldfinches. Flames of our mini forest, flames in our hearts. I feel an ache and lie down on the grass to watch the screeching swifts. My body sinks. I want nothing more than to sink underground.”

His arrival at his new home, a rented house on a modern estate beneath the Mourne mountains, makes him slump further. “The effort of the everyday is like wading through treacle,” he describes. “Anxiety has been spiralling, and the energy spent on the battles is towering like the Mourne Mountains that now surround our home.”

However, McAnulty soon settles, and it’s partly those silver Ys that help – descending there on his new garden, making him aware that “even if we flit again and again, this feeling will travel everywhere with us”.

This is also the story of a boy struggling with the pain of having been bullied, but then ultimately finding a voice in campaigning for nature and wider eco-activism.

Everything is felt in his writing. Autism, he says, makes him feel everything more intensely: “I don’t have a joy filter.” McAnulty is a teenager with little mask or armour, and it’s not hard to relate to his despair at the way other kids abuse and punch, or his struggle to relate to them. At one stage, he describes the sudden need to feel validated that he finds swamps him after he does some filming with Chris Packham and he starts comparing himself with other activists. What is extraordinary is that he appears to have been free from this feeling before. “The words they used to congratulate or criticise me seemed to grow larger and larger on the screen, until it suddenly dawned on me that I sought attention and validation.”

No doubt he will receive plenty of validation now. But at least, he seems to have a process for dealing with that, for breathing out what he describes as “the black smoke” and “trying profoundly hard to become me again”.

Vicky Allan