Caught by the River

Diary of a Young Naturalist

Sue Brooks | 23rd May 2020

Sue Brooks reviews the debut from 16-year old Dara McAnulty, published next week by Little Toller.

My first encounter with Dara McAnulty was in the rain at Hyde Park Corner on 22nd September 2018. I was one of the ten thousand people taking part in the Walk For Wildlife and he, aged fourteen, was part of the group of young people who had worked with Chris Packham to organise it. He read from the covered platform his extraordinary poem ‘Anthropocene’.

The second was strangely more personal. Diary of a Young Naturalist had just arrived and I had briefly leafed through it before setting out to walk by the river. It was March 1st, a rare day of sunlight after the floods. I remember feeling unusually excited and primed somehow, that something might happen. I took both binoculars and camera. On the way home a small, dark shape came from nowhere and landed a few yards in front. A peacock butterfly. I thought of Dara McAnulty, and for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, saw the butterfly as if through his eyes; felt its wonder, and my happiness in its presence. I was able to crouch down beside it, a rare privilege, and see at close quarters the ferocious tiger eyes and the burnt orange pigment around the furry body. Beautiful beyond words.

Later I read about it. The curiosity it quenches. Dara is looking intently at a woodlouse on his hand. It’s not even the connection I feel, but the curiosity it quenches. As you look closely, the moment sucks you in – again and again it’s a perfect moment. It was an explosive beginning and as I read on it was clear that this is much more than a diary of a young naturalist. It is the comprehensive story of the first fourteen years of a writer with exceptional gifts, and the family which has made it possible. It runs from the Spring Equinox 2018 to the Spring Equinox of 2019. Each season is introduced with a short meditation (in italics), looking back and anticipating what may come. Black and white photos and recurring motifs are carefully set within the narrative – the acorn, the blackbird, the otter, the hen harrier, Seamus Heaney, St. Kevin. They all have meaning and give shape to a world that is beyond the ordinary.

Of the five members of the McAnulty family, Dara’s mother, brother Lorcan, sister Blathnaid and Dara himself are autistic. His father is not. The major difficulties of coping with autism peaked when Dara was aged seven, and at some point soon after, he discovered the magic of words on the page where wonder grappled with frustration and could be cached as a refuge for the next time the anxiety armies attacked. He learned, with the tireless help of his mother (who was determined her own children would not suffer the excruciating pain and confusion she endured as a child), how to put aside the ceaseless voices in his head and allow the natural world to sweep in until feeling edges out thinking. When asked about the intensity of the feeling, he says the truth is I only know I’ve experienced it when I’m writing it down later. I relive moments by scratching them out on paper or typing them up. I don’t need to think about them much, all the details are right there in my mind and it surprises me every time.

The act of writing seems to have been the key. Through some alchemical process it enables Dara to tell his own story. The sentences roar and scream, despair and overflow with joy as he moves through the days. Intuitively, he has the light touch and ear that writers long for, and a gift for a telling image. A goshawk chick for example, looks like an autumn forest rolled in the first snows of winter; a wood anemone is exposed to the air like a forgotten spell, cinnabar caterpillars moving like slow motion accordions up the stem.

Exceptional self-awareness, introspection and attention to detail build up a delightful picture of daily life at home. An eccentric and chaotic bunch…pretty formidable…as close as otters and huddled together, we make our way in the world. Special days are celebrated with music, singing and telling stories: Mum reading from The Dark Is Rising by candlelight; the well-known words from Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Blackberry Picking’ as they set out in August, or the quote from Anne of Green Gables I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers – at the start of that month. And Dara’s own lovely compliment – Mum roars with all the childish delight that many of the kids I know have lost before they are 8 or 9.

As the year rolls on, the family move from Enniskillen on the West coast of Ireland to County Down on the East and Dara makes a good start in a new school. The traumas of eighteen months of bullying at Enniskillen are not repeated. He writes at half term: Actually I’m thriving. The entry for 22 September at Hyde Park tells me he felt strong on the stage and purposeful. He remembers that the crowd stood there in the pouring rain and as he spoke a silence seemed to descend. I believe it did.

St. Kevin draws the diary to an end. Dara has had a connection with him, and with the blackbird which is said to have nested in his outstretched hand, since he was very young. The family make a pilgrimage to the saint’s cell, and Dara has a few moments there alone. He reflects on all that has happened in the year, how he has changed, how he is ready to go out into the world and make his voice heard. How he knows what he wants to do. It is a unique voice and all credit to Little Toller for recognising this and setting Dara on his course. It is impossible to believe it belongs to someone so young. It has the experience and knowledge of science, mythology and history of someone many years in the field and an additional quality like no other – transcendence.

This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds, but neither am I separate from them.


Diary of a Young Naturalist is out now and available here, priced £16.00. You can follow Dara on Twitter here.