In a time when species are declining, oceans are rising, and our whole planet is threatened by global warming, authors who celebrate their joy in nature are sometimes accused of a sentimental nostalgia that fosters retreat from rather than actions against an ever grimmer environmental reality. What is the point of taking pleasure in rivers and forests when we have doomed them all in our greed and folly? Nature writers just fiddle above the flames while Mother Earth burns all around them.
Irish nature writer Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist brings his readers to the side of joy. Weaving the minute particulars of feather and lichen, otter and tadpole into a lyrically precise prose, his joy in nature is emotionally empowering in both a personal and a political sense.
McAnulty’s observations combine scientific detail with personal engagement. He is sitting near the sea on some “Silurian hornfels…the result of colliding continents and marine life recovering from extinction,” when some baby wrens hop up to him. As he hears them “drowning each other out with attention-grabbing chirps,” he muses that “this is the sound of our ancestors too, waves in one ear, wren siblings in the other. A two-track stereo. The sound of natural things that influence very other thing, whether we know it or not.”
Is this sense that human beings are woven into a web of natural being, (into “something far more deeply interfused” as Wordsworth put it, or like Thoreau’s idea of nature as “not of myself, but in myself”) mere romantic nostalgia for a natural abundance that we have destroyed?
On the contrary, the concept that human beings and nature interact in mutually beneficial interdependence is at the heart of contemporary environmental philosophies like Ecosophy and Deep Ecology, which are based on the Gaia Hypothesis that everything on the planet strives for balance in a complex synchronistic network.
McAnulty reaches his conclusions not by philosophical speculation but by direct experience. On a trip to Scotland to collect Goshawk data, for example, he notes that “Dave asked me to hold one of the birds, and as I bring it close to my chest its body heat illuminates me. I start to fill with something visceral. 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. Perhaps it’s a feeling of love, or a longing. I don’t know for certain. it is a rare feeling, a sensation that most of my life (full of school and homework) doesn’t have the space for. The goshawk wriggles. I settle it down and look into its eyes again – as it grows older the baby-blue eyes will change, become a bright and deep amber….”
Astonishingly, Dara McAnulty is only 16 years old: he wrote The Diary of a Young Naturalist about the how nature saved him when he was 14 and suffering from depression over being viciously bulled for his autism. Observing the smallest details of the world around him provided a mind-grounding solace, an anchor to still the thrashing waves of “brain chaos,” “pain thrusting” stabs of “quick transitions,” all the “inner torments” and “liquid panic” of his condition.
“I consolidate myself by thinking, and thinking whilst intensely watching the flight patterns of dragonflies or starlings is explosive or mind-blowing. Who knows where watching sparrows will lead?”
Where it has led this courageous young naturalist, in spite of his paralytic nervousness around people, is to the discovery that when he stands in front of a bullhorn at a School Climate Strike or a microphone on radio or television, he can speak as eloquently as he writes on behalf of the earth and her creatures.
*The Diary of a Young Naturalist will be published in the U.S. by Milkwood Books next spring, but it is readily available to U.S. readers from Blackwell’s (www.Blackwells.co.uk ). Cover art by Larry Falls.