Time to stand and stare, as William Henry Davies put it, has been one of the small mercies of this eerie intermission on life that we find ourselves in.
The National Biodiversity Data Centre, a website where citizens can log sightings of local flora and fauna, had almost twice as many records entered in May as there was last year. Agents are commissioning books of nature writing born during this pandemic. One of the mantras we hear from everyone we know is how loud birdsong seems to be this year.
Dara McAnulty is a nature-mad teenager from Ulster who has become another powerful and celebrated voice in the youth environmentalism movement. He was meant to release this eagerly awaited debut memoir into a world continuing to blindly swat nature out of its way in the hope that it could move readers and make a difference. As active in eco-campaigning as he is speaking out about autism awareness (his mother and siblings also have the condition), McAnulty was lined up to be one of the biggest publishing talking points of the year and a sell-out prospect for any festival that could get him.
The script has changed slightly, but not in an entirely bad way. While physical promotion and bookshop readings might be off the table now for the 16-year-old, public consciousness has undergone a shift during the Covid era that could be a blessing in disguise.
Nature is now a thing we all draw comfort from, a series of beautiful discoveries within 5km of our front doors and a talking point when we get to see people. It is no longer some abstract layer of our surroundings we are too busy to properly absorb, and the hope is that this will be one of the lasting changes of the lockdown. McAnulty's beautiful book potentially has a warmer welcome awaiting it than it might have had otherwise.
Let's hope that this is how things play out for this remarkable young man because Diary of a Young Naturalist is not only one of the finest pieces of modern nature writing produced on this island in recent years, McAnulty is one of our best young writers in any genre.
Little Toller, that super independent publishing house, approached McAnulty's parents after reading his blog; a canny move it turns out. Told over the course of four seasons in the field journal format (a mainstay of the nature writing tradition), this memoir is a shimmering, tactile thing that is almost as notable for what it says about the human world as the wild. Since being diagnosed with autism at the age of five, McAnulty became increasingly drawn towards nature as a place of stimulation and levelling.
In the fine folds of the plant and animal kingdoms, he could empty himself into the science and wonder of it all, and shut out the anxieties set off in him by his peers. "Dandelions remind me of the way I close myself off from much of the world… The Bullying. The foul-mouthed insults directed at the intense joy I feel, directed at my excitement, at my passion. For years I kept it to myself, but now these words are leaking into my world."
Moving from Fermanagh to Co Down and the upheaval that entails is a particular challenge that almost becomes a hinge in the book. His descriptions are occasionally poignant but there is also so much tenderness in how this unique family supports one another when autistic reflexes spill over.
Rich poeticism courses through the writing that belies his years. A corncrake "sizzles against the bleating of lambs and moaning of cows, another wild song sacrificed to the agricultural soundscape". A male hen harrier is a "giver of silvery inner light" while a downy goshawk chick encountered during a ringing expedition is likened to "an autumn forest rolled in the first snows of winter". "Current-swimmer, rock-clinger, water ouzel and the holy grail of stream-watching," he says of the dipper.
Here and there, dotted through language that people three times his age would kill for, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of wildlife, we realise McAnulty was barely a teenager when assembling these words. He listens to punk, quotes Morrissey, plays Xbox and gets bullied. He speaks both from and to a generation who are putting their older relatives to shame at a key time in the fortunes of this planet. That adolescent blend of temerity and doubt, underpinned by passion and knowledge, proves irresistible.
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But beyond McAnulty's skill as a writer and the thrill of discovering a potent new voice to enjoy throughout a career, it is the place he is writing from that feels so important. The worldview he encourages and the stigmas he breaks down while doing so feel vital right now alongside his gorgeously spun outdoors paeans. As with Greta Thunberg, autism has provided McAnulty with a clarity of view and a direct no-nonsense attitude to the wealth surrounding us and the perversity of the damage we are doing. We could do with more of that, if anything.