Reviews, Uncategorized

Non-fiction book review: Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

A few weeks ago, my nan told me about a book written by an autistic teenager that recently won the Wainwright Prize (which is a UK award focusing on books about nature) and offered to buy me a copy. Naturally, having a great love of nature myself and also wanting to read more autistic voices, I said I’d love to read it. (Though, amusingly, the book is yellow, which is the one colour that is absolute sensory hell for me – an easy fix though, as I simply turned the dust cover inside out.)

The book is written in journal format and is compiled into sections based on the four seasons. It’s difficult to fully articulate my feelings on it, but I’ll try. (A warning, though: this is likely to be a long and rambling post detailing some of my own life experiences rather than just focusing on the book. I promise it will be relevant, though!)

Firstly, Dara’s writing is very evocative and poetic – I had serious writer envy on this one. He seems to have the ability to place you exactly in the situation he’s describing; every detail fed to you as if your own senses were picking it up. At least, that’s how it was for me – maybe it’s because the way my senses work are very similar to his, but judging by the amount of praise this book has had, I doubt it’s just that. This did, however, present something of a problem in that it was sometimes too much for me to handle. My head would be reeling after reading a section just like it does when I’m experiencing sensory overload. I was also a little intimidated at the beginning by the sheer knowledge he has; every species and sub-species mentioned is identified, which meant a lot of names to get my head around. I did get used to it once I got past the first quarter, but it took some time. But nature has been central to his entire life, so it makes sense that his knowledge is so vast.

Secondly, his passion leaks from every word, and while noting the intricacies and completely fascinating things, he also goes into detail about the very real threats to the world (I would say the natural world, but we are part of nature rather than separate from it): climate change, deforestation, hunting, pollution, just to name a few. Now, as mentioned above, nature is one of my loves too, and I’m very passionate about protecting it. But over the years, the apathy and unkindness of others has beaten down my willingness to express why it’s important to me. I used to share all the petitions I sign on my social media pages, but now only share a handful, and in 2013, I tried fundraising for a charity (Cool Earth – check them out if you can) by getting tattooed in the armpit, only to have very little response. Realising that I’d pretty much silenced myself without even knowing came as quite a shock. And I felt like I’d let myself and the environment down, that I wasn’t doing enough.

But I kept reading, and as Dara also documents his mental health, having experienced intense bullying at school because of his interests, I came to understand that the key to why I stopped was because my own mental health wasn’t good enough to handle such negativity. That, and I get so overwhelmed about how much of a crisis the world is in that I feel like I might be crushed by it.

However, I also came to realise that though I haven’t been as vocal as I would like, I’ve still continued doing things to try and bring about the changes I’d love to see. I still sign petitions, and when my finances allow, I donate to relevant charities. I also sneak bits into my books to generate awareness, like including several stories focusing on endangered animals and deforestation in my short story collection, When the Bard Came Visiting, and having characters interact with nature in quite profound ways. So, while I might have too much anxiety to go to a climate march (not that that would be a good idea during the current pandemic), or experience too much overwhelm to constantly share facts about how much the rainforests have been cut down or the oceans have been polluted by plastic and oil spills, I can continue to do the little things within my area of expertise. And if I spark even one person’s passion for the environment, then it’ll be worth it.

Now, back to the actual book.

Dara’s ability to reflect on his experiences is really what makes this book come together, and though at first it seems quite simple, it covers an awful lot of ground. As I mentioned above, he talks about mental health and bullying, and how it’s often quite hard for autistic people to express themselves. I know from my own experiences how difficult it is – the ideas are there in my head but refuse to come out in any intelligible way. He also splashes in bits of Irish and world mythology here and there, which creates yet another layer to what he’s reflecting on. I really loved reading those parts.

In short (after taking far, far too much space going over the ‘long’), this book is a beautiful exploration of our world and being part of a minority within it, and despite the mental turmoil it caused within me, left me with an awful lot of hope, too.

If, as I would urge, you decide to pick up a copy, you can get it here. I would also encourage you to check out his blog and Youtube channel too.

Poetry

Worlds apart, but ever close

In mid-flight, I heard your call,

Never knowing it was you at all.

As I neared the tallest hills,

My eyes caught sight and I was stilled

In the being of you:

Trickling words, algorithms of many hues.

Days, weeks, hours all passed,

I finally know at last,

Wherever I go, you will be.

We are utterly each other’s key

To our future prime.

We’ve given up being blind.

Poetry

A tide of turning

The ink spills onto the page and becomes a river.

Tributaries branch out across several notepads,

soaking through outlines and spider diagrams,

manuscript versions one, two, three, four

final. Final Final. Final Final point one…

The river becomes so large it leaks into the ocean,

where a single bound volume

labelled DICTIONARY

floats to the top, raising its head

like a whale, defined on page 1894.

Poetry

Water Nymph

Sometimes I think I’m water.

Well, technically a substantial portion of me is,

but I’m talking about,

you know,

free flowing water.

The kind that freezes when it’s cold,

or pools in shallow dips when it rains,

hangs around in the air

to fluff up

that girl’s neatly straightened hair.

Except it isn’t my form that changes.

It’s my mood,

my entire attitude

to life.

I’m not complaining, just

observing really.

Once I thought it’d be good to be fire.

Then the wind caught my candle

and blew it out.

Poetry

Ink

It spills out through my veins

my corneas, fingernails,

bleeding from my nose

to splash the page I’m fixed to.

I don’t find it suffocating,

only cold. But

it warms every now and then

when the words demand it

for their dinner.

I like those times.

I like to feed them.

Poetry

A slap across the face

Struck like stone

hitting those sieving trays

You get at Legoland, hunting

For fool’s gold.

All gold is fool’s gold to me, the wish to claim

It just as childish as that game.

People get offended when you call them that.

Because no-one is allowed to be like that anymore.
 

Poetry

Estimated time of arrival: unknown

Sitting on the empty sofa in the waiting room

Waiting

To be called;

Palms sweaty, throat small, mind cogs grinding

Every eventuality.

Not the doctor’s, not the dentist, not even

The school nurse’s office.

The sofa is not a sofa.

It is a stark white chair outside your

Parents’ study,

And you are waiting

Waiting

For them to notice.

 

 

Poetry

Times

You can lean

against many things in life.

The sturdy and immoving wall;

Ideas which stretch across lifetimes, continents, cultures;

Friends who were once strangers.

And then

there are those photographs

of diferent times,

times we took for granted

And times we thought

were hard before we knew

what that realĺy meant.