The Young Naturalist

Book Review by James King

Dara McAnulty: Diary of a Young Naturalist, The Text Publishing Company, 2020.

RRP: $29.99

ISBN: 9781922330000

I was given this book for Christmas, and having no prior knowledge of it, or its author, I raised a sceptical eyebrow. My experience with books as Christmas gifts is not an entirely happy one, and I have a reputation for being difficult to please. However, the title immediately appealed to me, as it put me in mind of Seamus Heaney’s first published book of poems, of which ‘Death Of A Naturalist’ was the title poem. So I proceeded with a touch of optimism, and hoped to find a Heaney connection along the way, if not much else. ‘Humbug’, I hear you say!

In the prologue, the diarist introduces himself as a 14-year old boy living in rural Northern Ireland. He is autistic, as are his mother and two siblings. He tells us plainly that he has ‘the heart of a naturalist’, so it’s clear he has plenty of self-confidence. Despite his mother having been advised by his teacher that his autism was so severe ‘he would not be able to string a paragraph together’, he found others were interested in his blogs, and so he was encouraged to turn his daily jottings into a book.

That unusual mix of ingredients whetted my appetite, and to spur me on, I didn’t have to wait long for hints of Heaney to surface, as they do later, for in the very first paragraph, Dara tells us that his mother’s pet name for him was ‘lon dubh’, Irish for blackbird, and he was clearly familiar with Heaney’s spine-tingling poem, ‘St. Kevin and the Blackbird’.

Dara’s recording of his observations of the panoply of cyclical events of the flora and fauna of counties Fermanagh and Down are immediate evidence of his sixth sense, and his gift with the written word is obviously exceptional, for a writer of any age.

The diary format I suppose is a relatively easy way to produce a book, dispensing as it does with plot, but this is more than a diary, more than a young naturalist’s enthusiastic account of the seasonal events in a calendar year, and his concern for the acute threats to ecological survival, it is also a first-hand account of the stresses and strains (as well as the heightened sensitivities) of a young person living with autism.

Dara is highly intelligent, and gloriously eloquent but suffers from, and is aware of a range of emotional and psychological disturbances which seriously adversely affect his equanimity. He experiences severe panic attacks, depression and agoraphobia, but his insight into his condition seems to enable him to develop coping strategies, and he lives in an exceptionally supportive family. His account of these struggles carries no hint of self-pity or exaggeration, but his buoyant self-belief is his lifeline.

His intellectual precocity I assume, enabled him to get a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school which was a catastrophic experience for him, as his ‘quirkiness’ invited severe and relentless bullying, and it sounds like he got out in the nick of time. It’s not easy, being different.

When I realised I was reading the work of such a gifted teenager, I of course looked him up, and wasn’t surprised to find that he has received many awards for his conservation work, and for his multiple contributions to global efforts directed at mitigating the effects of climate change. I’m confident we’ll be hearing a lot more from and about Dara McAnulty, who perhaps will become Ireland’s answer to David Attenborough. This is a fine start to what I hope will be a long and successful career for him as a gifted naturalist, with welcome benefits for our benighted planet.

And this book makes a fine Christmas present!

James King is a research obstetrician and Joyce scholar, who trained at the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin.