Book Reviews

Diary of a Young Naturalist chronicles the turning of Dara McAnulty's world, from spring to summer, autumn to winter, on his home patch, at school, in the wild and in his head.

Reviewed by: Kate Chandler

“I’m three, and living either inside my head or amongst the creeping, crawling, fluttering, wild things. They all make sense to me, people just don’t.”

Published in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist has taken a troubled world by storm. It has already been shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing, making McAnulty the first Irish writer and - at sixteen - the youngest contender for the prize

The book follows a year in McAnulty’s life from spring to winter; thirteen to fourteen; one school to another; from Fermanagh to County Down; through changes; challenges and environmental activism. Woven throughout are his diamond-sharp observations of the natural world - from the life that grows like magic in a bucket in his family’s suburban garden, to sightings of hen harriers and goshawks.

The act of memory-making is a crucial tool for McAnulty who - along with his mother, brother, and sister - is autistic. He recalls with startling detail events from when he was three years old, and displays a knack for reflection and self-awareness that many twice his age would love to possess:

“To me these are the brightest memories, bell-clear, crisp as our footfall that afternoon.”

McAnulty’s account of his activism includes a visit to Dublin’s ‘Dead Zoo’ for the inaugural Irish Extinction Rebellion gathering. The pressure he feels to be a voice for change sits alongside a desire to hold onto his childhood, and an openness to wonder and joy:

“I lift my face to the rain and let cloud particles fall on my tongue.”

What struck me most in this beautiful book was the generosity with which the author shares his own precious landscapes: Big Dog Forest, Gortmaconnell Rock, Killykeeghan Nature Reserve - he doesn’t have to reveal these “secret places” to us - but by doing so he allows us a glimpse into a deeply personal and treasured world which makes his message resonate even more.

Another joy: McAnulty’s pride in his culture is scattered all over its pages; Irish language is everywhere: lon dubh; scréachóg; of goldfinches - “flames of our own mini forest”. His glossary is to be savoured in itself. To see Irish language and culture so lovingly treated by a Wainwright contender - an award which has long been starved of Irish voices - makes me want to punch the air in delight.

I devoured this book in two days flat. It would have been poignant enough in a pre-Covid world, but even more so now, when so many of our own geographies have been reduced; when tentative re-opening has seen both a hunger for and a consumeristic disregard of natural spaces.

McAnulty knows that people will only protect what they truly care about. Diary of a Young Naturalist is an invitation to each of us to find wonder in our own everyday:

“A spring evening spent watching life in a bucket on your doorstep is pure enchantment. Yes, it absolutely is!”

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