Inside, that’s where I store these moments, accumulated in a cabinet of noticings and happenings, brought out when I need them most, to illuminate. I must go into the world to find new things. They are always there. Always.
~ Dara McAnulty ~
In the face of devastating news from every direction, I have been reading an incandescent book. A diary by a teenage North Irishman named Dara McAnulty. I take it into the woods with me. As I listen I find myself slowing down until I’m barely wandering, every sense more alive to the world I’m walking through. The vivid green triangles of new fern fronds, bright in the forest dimness. Tiny white bells under tender green leaves. Creamy iris unfurling, luminous in the twilight. The cool breeze of early coastal California spring on my skin. The voluptuous spiciness of sage. The buzzing of bees, filling the plants I pass with humming.
This isn’t new; I do things like this almost daily. And yet they are different — slower, softer, dreamier — when I do them with Dara’s voice in my ear. Time ceases to exist. I’m out as the rich, late afternoon sunlight fades into pearly dusk and am amazed at how late it is when l get home.
The book, Diary of a Young Naturalist, is his ecstatic journey through the four seasons of the year he was fourteen. He starts with his birthday month, March 2018, when “spring seems to be escaping the retreating shadows of winter.” When I say ecstatic I don’t mean a measure of happiness, but that he lives in the altered states of a being who is illuminated by love. In his case, by a passion for the natural world. It’s a saving passion because he is autistic in a world that for much of his young life struggled to offer him a place. A world with too much noise and bustle for him to comfortably process. A world startlingly cruel to those who are different.
He has a devoted family, “as close as otters.” His mother, brother, and sister are also autistic. At least at home, he is surrounded with the grace of understanding and support, especially from his extraordinary mother. Weekend trips to mountains, sea, forest keep him going all week in a school never meant for his way of learning, if anyone’s. Bullied outside, forced to sit still inside, jangled by loud colors and the din of busyness, it’s days of “ticking things off brain-lists.” He loves to learn but “the things we’re learning are as captivating as a dripping tap.”
He enters fourteen “quieter, more inward-looking, reticent, scarred by the hurt of others.” But it’s also a year when he, with great effort and courage, turns outward. The family makes a stressful move to a new area when the school year ends, carefully choosing a house across the street from a forest. He finds a friend in his new neighborhood, then one in his new school, then more as he bravely starts an ecology club despite bitter experiences in years past. Readers all over the world discover the award-winning blog he started a year earlier. He starts interacting on social media and is exhilarated as he finds kindred spirits. Devastated as he runs into the buzz saw that such spaces can be, bullying piling on childhood years of being bullied, driving him to thoughts of suicide.
Dealing with the cacophony, “I do what I always do. What I must do. I went back to the dunes of Murlough Bay…to be with the waves and the seals and the butterflies.” Lying on the sand, the songs of skylarks and calls of gulls and linnets echoing, he can promise not to lose himself again. He notices the shadows under his mother’s eyes and vows not to let the bullies weigh on him, to find the beauty in everything for her sake. “Can I breath and live and also fight? The natural world — which includes us — is facing such enormous challenges that it’s easy to become overwhelmed and depressed. But we must fix them, and if I’m no longer here, alive, I can’t be part of the solution.”
As he shares his passionate love and concern for the natural world, the world of naturalists and activists turns to him. They ask him to join a bio blitz, a bird tagging expedition, a raptor monitoring group. He joins protests. He organizes wildlife displays for local organizations and begins to speak at gatherings. These last are agonizing. He finds it hard to speak to anyone outside his family, let alone a crowd. At an early one, he forgets to take off his fleece jacket and ends his talk with perspiration running down his neck.
The crowds get larger and he needs an hour of sitting in silence to recover from speaking. But, he says, “I feel the need to be brave.” Despite his body becoming “rigid with effort”, he speaks to a large crowd after receiving an award for his activism and all goes well. He wants to help the earth he loves so much and musters the courage to persevere. By the fall of the year, he is speaking to 20,000 naturalists and activists gathered for A People’s Walk for Wildlife in London.
But he also is leery of the role he and other youthful activists are asked to play. “The kids are invited to ‘have a voice’…and then very little happens.” They are never invited to the tables where policy is made. “We hand over our hearts, beating on a platter, for nothing…tangible.” The power differential among the forces of economics, development, and conservation is “so out of control that it’s easy to become overwhelmed, depressed, and disconnected.” And yet, struggling with despair, with a heart beating “as fast as a dragonfly wing”, he persists. Standing against “those who steal my hope, and steal hope from future generations who will inherit a planet so extracted, diminished, less bountiful.”
As an exploration of the mind, heart, and soul of an enchanted boy as he leaves childhood, the book is intensely rich and riveting. What lights the book to incandescence is his boundless love for and celebration of the natural world and the exquisite prose with which he describes it. The book is filled with heart-stopping descriptions, some in the captions of the included photos. Of a gathering of moths one evening, he writes that their “feather-like scales, brown flecked with silver, are shimmering with starry dust…The night crackles as the storm of flitting moves off, and even though the moths didn’t make a sound, the night seems to have less noise without them.” I would be hard-pressed to think of a more beautiful, evocative description, leaving a hush in its own wake.
Because of his eloquence, the challenges he describes are heart-wrenching. Being autistic in a loud, busy, cruel world. Soul deflating schools. Grief at the way the natural world is treated. The existential questions arising as childhood turns to young adulthood. And yet the book hums with joy, sometimes quiet, sometimes bounding. And it grows: “With every passing day, a little more joy sneaks in.” He wonders if there is “a peak, a maximum amount of joy that we’re allowed to feel?” I want to say — to him, to me, to all of us — no. Despite our fears, despite the ghastliness of war, and the devastation of the natural world. Despite the demons of greed and ignorance. Despite it all, there’s no limit to the joy that can come from being rooted on this glorious planet. That joy is the earth herself rising in us, healing our lives and hers.
“I’m surrounded by five or six fly agaric mushrooms. Like them, I have burst open. I feel more resilient, more powerful. The years of cruel taunts, beating, exclusion, isolation, helplessness: all the potential for hurt has been eclipsed by meaning and purpose. My life is now all about that. I can’t just love the natural world. I have to raise my voice even louder to help it. It’s my duty, the duty of all of us, to support and protect nature. Our life support system, our interconnectedness, our interdependence.”
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