What can we say about a book written by a 16-year-old? A book that comes wrapped in a cover of jaunting yellows, with the title in a liberal freehand, so it looks like it’ll be fun. And the young author – like most of his immediate family – is on the autism spectrum, which brings a particular slant to his life and means he was often bullied. What can one possibly say except “splendid, well done”? To lavish anything but praise would be cruel. He’s a kid, a young activist, enthusiastic to a fault. He has his difficulties. The book has already won prizes. Just be kind and quietly put the book on the pile with the rest of the unread. What can we say about another – yet another – first-person account of being in nature?
But this book is refreshing. For one thing, there is the scampering energy of it. The tumbling, intelligent, young prose rolls quickly through the year. There’s the variety of the entries. (Compare one’s own teenage diaries. “Saturday. Did nothing. Chips for tea.”) There is the flitting back and forth between outer and inner worlds. The joyful appetite for flowers, hoverflies, water boatmen. (And the knowledge – he understands the science too.) And chiefly there is the family, Dara’s loving enablers, who are caught in this book at a crucial time, the upheaval of a move from Fermanagh to County Down.
Dara describes a home with both parents, three kids and a dog, and a car to take them on trips. A warm home. They are ordinary, yet somehow remind one of the families in the children’s literature of the 1950s or 1960s; an Alan Garner or Susan Cooper family, normal but also a bit magic.
[See also: An elegy for the ash tree]
The family appears to be wholly enviable, and bound with ties of love to one another and to a natural world which they actively – and often – seek out together. The book is filled with trips to woods, mountains, beaches. The parents never seem to say, “I’m too tired, too stressed, we can’t afford it.” Or, “What do you want to go there for?” They never say, “Put that down, it’s dirty.”
The book navigates the anxiety Dara feels about moving house and school: both fill his mind, but the school is a success and he becomes happy there. The natural world calms and informs. He exults in sand dunes, in rooks and bats, and in creatures most of us wouldn’t notice: a crowd of silver Y moths, which have “feather-like scales, brown flecked with silver”, and which can apparently confuse the sonar readings of bats and therefore escape being eaten. He watches goldeneye ducks and compares their paddling feet to the experience of a person with autism. “On the surface, no one realises the work needed, the energy used, so you can blend in and be like everyone else.” He says he makes movements other people consider odd, little jumps and wiggles. But, he adds – a point well made – that “some neurotypical people talk incessantly. So much small talk!”
It’s refreshing also that the book is set almost entirely in rural Northern Ireland, a part of the world still little visited or understood by outsiders. Dara was not yet born at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. His diary is a valuable addition to post-Troubles literature, revealing the landscapes and natural abundance that are still overshadowed by the country’s political history. He takes us from watery Fermanagh to the sea-birds of Rathlin Island to the strands of Strangford Lough. It’s a local literature – no exoticism required. His scientific interest matures: there is a trip to Scotland to meet some ornithologists and study red kites, and a trip to London in his role as an environmental activist, where the government minister arrives, gives a speech and is whisked away again, and nothing changes.
[See also: The magic of mushrooms]
But despite all, this is a book about joy, and lack of joy. It’s a diary of delight and immediacy. Again and again, Dara puzzles about the joylessness that confronts him in others. Children are not naturally miserable. When does it occur, this souring? What happens to “normal” people as we go through our “normal” teens and into adult life? Many an adult reader will find themselves remembering their own teens, and trying to identify the moment when the disconnect began, that alienates so many from the living world to the extent that we shrug when faced with its destruction.
Is it our families? We may recall our own parents, overworked adults who craved a nice house and would not tolerate a smelly crab-shell or an owl pellet to be brought indoors. Is it our so-called education? Though Dara excels at his exams, and will doubtless become a great scientist, it’s valuable to have a report from one who is still at the chalk-face. Could our indoors, desk-bound school system be right up there as a world-wrecker, along with intensive farming, unchecked emissions and capitalism?
Hopefully, other young readers will feel emboldened by this book, and given a sense of community. As for the rest of us, fatigued as we may be, Dara McAnulty reminds us that simple joy can actually help save the world. His is a refusal to mourn. No – it is a refusal to only mourn. Anger and grief certainly flash out. But family, and world-love triumph.
“Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland” edited by Kathleen Jamie is published by Canongate
Diary of a Young Naturalist
Little Toller Books, 224pp, £16
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special