Review: Diary of a Young Naturalist

A big part of our collection is books about climate and ecology. While the pandemic continues, it’s difficult to take our books and other collections out to people, so we’re inviting reviews of relevant books instead. This first is by Naomi Faulkner-Felgate, a 20 year old wildlife enthusiast and writer. She has reviewed a book donated to us by Richard Bradford (who is involved with the Dorchester Trees Initiative): Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty. This is published by Little Toller, with cover illustrations by Barry Falls. 

This is Naomi’s review…

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When given Diary of a Young Naturalist I waited till a sunny day arrived, and then climbed out onto the scaffolding beneath my window. I had a view across a dozen gardens and was eye level with the crown of our magnolia, and it was up here that I found an unexpected blessing in the lockdown period. The calm that settles when reading this book is a lot like stepping into nature itself. For however many hours you dedicate to its pages, the noise of the world quietens, letting only the birdsong in. In the midst of what had become an almost suffocating level of monotony, I finally found the space to breathe again. Dara McAnulty offers a year of his life to be a safe haven for anyone willing to listen, and with each new day you feel as if you’re being let in to witness something special, a real moment. Then another. And then another. Days, weeks and months are carefully spun and strung together under his voice. A voice that characterises his family, his relationships, and his self with ease, using the intimate connection to nature that he holds so close. His sheer depth of understanding towards the natural world is breathtaking, and even for someone who considers themselves to be a bit of a wildlife wiz, the scope of what my knowledge should be was abruptly expanded. And I’m not complaining.

The weaving of facts and feeling in this passionate narrative is a treat, but one that honestly took me by surprise. My interest in psychology meant that I’d only ever come across autism as an area of study. Neuroscientists only described the effect it had on people and their interactions with a purely clinical take, a distance. Dara allows no distance in his work. He is up close to anything that interests him and personal when he addresses every part of his day. And why shouldn’t he be? It’s his diary. Emotions run free, and it’s up to the reader to follow along and relate. True, he does nothing to hide his frustration for the societal expectations placed upon him, and the stresses they cause. But he also never lets this get in the way of a conversation with the reader. Instead we get consistently clear insights into his and his family’s behaviour, and everything going on behind the scenes. He shares his happiness and his pain. His highs and his lows. And for that he has my respect. There is an incredible bravery in baring yourself to the world and all its potential criticism, in allowing that level of vulnerability. I believe that most people, regardless of age, can relate to the darkness that drags him down, and the instances of light that make him fight to keep going.

One of the triggers behind the lower points in his year come from the recurring topic of the bullying Dara has experienced. It is not an uncommon experience, and many have fallen victim to it, often because they are perceived to be in some way different. Autism unfortunately falls under this label – people look down on what they don’t understand. What caused additional anger on my part, was that these bullies’ ignorance extended towards caring for the planet. That to some, protecting the environment and its inhabitants is somehow seen as abnormal, something they don’t understand. Granted, after this book was written Greta Thunberg became an even more prominent figure, and climate strikes became an accepted and exciting movement for young people across the world. Yet living side by side with the people desperate for change and hope are still those that just don’t seem to care. There seems to be a culture amongst many of the young, where what is easy, and fast and cheap is worthy of more attention than the cost lurking just out of sight around the next decade. It’s old news that capitalism is built on the exploitation of the environment. It’s not surprising to see a politician disregard climate change when a place in another’s pocket is on offer. But too many children have looked up and learned from adults, slowly disconnecting from the planet around them while they grew into the shape society needed: consumers. So yes, there are a number who do march and strike for climate change. Who make life choices to reduce their carbon footprint. Who think about where their energy and food comes from. But there are still too many who don’t. Who open their bank accounts to the latest fast fashion trend. Who take cheap flights to a weekend holiday abroad. Who throw all their rubbish in the bin, no recycling, no knowledge of where their waste even goes, because life’s easier that way.

Dara is of course then ridiculously easy to admire. He and his family regularly do beach cleaning. He puts pressure on his MP to address environmental issues. He speaks in front of crowds of protesters as a focal voice for their anger. Yet he also doesn’t shy away from freely questioning himself. What his contribution is to helping the environment. Whether or not he’s doing enough on a larger scale. Whether he’s holding himself accountable. But while this is an incredible thing to reflect on, his anxiety also causes him to put too much pressure on himself. And I can’t help but wonder how that pressure would be lessened if we all held our lives under the same glaring spotlight. I doubt I for one would like what I found.

Feelings of guilt did linger at times when reading, as I admit to feeling unsuited to the upfront approach that Dara often takes, and therefore less effective in my aim to in some way help. How many of us really feel like we do enough to make a difference in this crisis? Instead I often place my focus on some of the smaller victories that the narrator too celebrates with his family: turning our gardens into places where wildlife thrives. Whether or not it plays a large part in the preservation of our planet’s beauty, when you invest time and energy into creating a pocket of safety for life, life undoubtedly gives back. There haven’t been many days in lockdown where you couldn’t find me sitting outside at some point, watching the sparrows squabble over food. Our ever faithful robin has often sat next to me as I’ve dug up earth, always assessing the quality of any worms that appear. I’ve seen bluetits, coaltits, long-tailed tits. There have been blackbirds, wrens, a new troop of goldfinches. A lone female blackcap. Magpies, thankfully a pair – not that I’m superstitious. There are tiny frogs in our pond that hold our hope for generations to come. At least four peacock butterflies have visited, a species I’ve never spotted in our garden before! Pipistrelle bats fly over from the park opposite our house. Woodpeckers dance around on the large tree a few gardens down and nearly peck through the branches they sit on. Sometimes tawny owls call at night. And our fox couple visit with the cubs they’re subtly trying to kick out. The vibrancy and variation I’ve seen this summer may not be much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s definitely something.

There are an array of inspirational moments and actions in Diary of a Young Naturalist, where there’s no possibility that Dara does anything but care for the natural world. Yet, for me the most important moments were the times before these actions where he first made a decision to try and do something. Because that is the universal message, where my hope in the future lies, with somebody, anybody, willing to try and keep trying to change, to do something new. Large or small, it all starts in that decision. When Dara places people like Dr Eimear Rooney and Dr Marc Ruddock – both of whom protect raptor species by using satellites to monitor them – as his heroes, this message comes forth again. These two have dedicated themselves to protecting only a fraction of the wildlife on this planet, and even so what they do is incredibly special. Work like theirs encourages young people like Dara to step up and find their own passions, to see how they can help. It is not the politicians or world leaders that hold much – if any – real focus in this book, because the actions of the people he considers to be important exist outside of what those in power say. Our government is unlikely to put forth green policies or conservation laws that will begin to fix things anytime soon, and with Brexit looming ahead things are likely looking to get worse. So while it’s important to keep pressuring and voting, to have whatever say we can in the political sphere, it’s more important for every one of us to take the responsibility into our own hands now and act directly in whatever way we can. The change must first come from the people. It is a distant dream that one day I will be proud of the world humanity has built. But if my garden has reminded me of anything, it’s that a multitude of species are entirely capable of living and interacting in one space. Humanity too can live in peace with nature, if we just take the time to sit, watch and learn. If we can set aside the narcissism that plagues our interactions with both the natural world and with each other, we can use the cognitive capability we’re so proud of and start to fix the damage we’ve done. We need to want to be better. We need to try.

‘I want to find the beauty in everything’ – Dara McAnulty

So do I.

Naomi Faulkner-Felgate

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Published by: bridgetmck

Director of Flow Associates, cultural consultants, since 2006. See www.flowassociates.com Before this I was head of learning at the British Library, Education Officer at Tate and similar roles. I'm interested in cultural strategy, arts interpretation, digital futures, environmental sustainability and creative education.

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