Wednesday, 8 August
Every day we are exploring more of the forest park across the road from us, relishing it in small sections, getting to know it like a friend. We have found secret paths among the jays and rooks. We have climbed banks of leaf litter, strayed far off pathways. I can feel my energy returning, and my appetite too. I’ve not felt very hungry for days, but as the emptiness in my head is filled with fresh sights and sounds, the emptiness in my belly needs filling with food again.
The days are developing a pattern that we’ve probably all been craving. The topsy-turvy of moving and acclimatizing is passing. We’re settling into the house and into picnics in the forest. On one of the days, the day before yesterday, a hooded crow settled at my feet. It was a juvenile male, and I could hear the scratchiness of his movements as he hopped over my leg. It made me think of a line from The Secret Garden: “Much more surprising things can happen to anyone, who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable, determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place.”
Saturday, 11 August
We’re driving to Dungonnell Reservoir, Glenariff, in the Glens of Antrim for an annual gathering of people from all over who care about hen harriers. It’s a chance for us to express a shared outrage at the persecution of all birds of prey, and to share our own experiences of seeing hen harriers.
I haven’t been around more than a small group of people for a while now, and I can feel huge knots tying up my insides. At all these gatherings, you see, well-meaning people tell me how inspirational I am. How my tweets lift their day. How my blogs, campaigning, talks are “just amazing” or “fabulous,” and some even say how I’m a “fantastic role model to young people.” I hate it all. Honestly, I feel like an imposter. I don’t deserve any praise. It makes me feel really uncomfortable because, well, why don’t they just help their children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews to join in? To do the same. To take the spotlight off me.
I smile, shake hands. The usual.
I feel terrible not being appreciative of their compliments, and just have to walk away from everyone, down the grassy bank, toward the reservoir where the ground is scorched—wildflowers hang on by a raggedy thread. Dragonflies—hawkers—are hovering and darting over the boggy pools, snatching prey from the air. Peacock butterflies are in abundance— I count at least twelve that pepper the brown-green grass with fluttering color and multiple eyes.
Back at the gathering, things are winding down. There aren’t any talks this year, for which I am grateful—my normal enthusiasm for speaking to groups of people has completely vanished. Maybe it will return in time, maybe not. The rest of the afternoon passes with no big catastrophes, and we spot five buzzards on the way home. There were no hen harriers at the reservoir, though. Nor any on the way home, and I wonder if I’ll ever see one again this year.
Arriving home to a welcome committee of my sister’s friends is now a normality. I loiter outside for a bit, then all of a sudden feel the urge to go looking for some nature finds with the younger ones. There’s a communal shrubbery across from our house, so I walk around it looking for a feather or some Herb Robert to show them. I don’t want to bring out my own specimens, just in case they slip from smaller fingers or wander off. I notice a bloody feathered mass on the ground on the other side of the shrubbery. Perfect!
I run to get some gloves and take apart the prize: a goldfinch wing. I clean it off a little, quickly smooth down the feathers. I show the kids and they look at me and the wing with a mixture of repulsion and curiosity. I put it down for them to inspect, glorious and golden and black with silvery flecks of fluff. I tell them to stroke it, to feel how soft it is. They don’t balk. Their eyes shine. I impart a few facts, and as some of the kids know Irish, I tell them that goldfinches are called lasair choille, “flame of the forest,” and ask if they know that a gathering of goldfinches is described as a “charm.” They ask more questions, I get my book and show them some pictures of garden birds. Who would’ve thought that looking under a shrubbery in a housing estate could have brought such a moment? I glow in the dusk. The streetlight is flickering, and a robin sings to it. I sit on the step, as the paths and streets are now empty. I wonder if there is a glow around me still, or if anyone can see it.
Tuesday, 14 August
The shrieks of playing children swivel from house to house. Through the back window comes the intermittent rush of cars and lorries—it’s not horrendous, though, because the trees in our garden shield us from the road. It’s the first time I’ve lived in a house with mature native trees. The ivy-coated trunks vibrate with life.
Before breakfast, I usually leave the sound of my brother tinkling on his keyboard in our bedroom to see what’s happening at the bottom of the garden, bursting with all sorts of wonderful things. And now that Dad has slung a hammock between the cherry and rowan, it’s become part of my morning routine to swing on it before the rush-hour traffic gets too much. From it, I can watch a great tit feeding its young, flying off intermittently to forage for caterpillars and spiders. The young are fluffed up at the moment, and as dull as their exhausted parents. The feathers have a herringbone pattern to them, delicate and wispy, a barely there green. Their calls (four shrill beeps) are answered quickly. It feels late for the baby season. It’s typical for great tits to raise two broods, but having left our fledglings in Fermanagh some time ago, I’m not sure whether these County Down birds are on the first or second round of chicks. I need to tune in. It’ll take time, but soon enough the seasons will tell me what I need to know. The turning of the year will reveal its secrets.
I close my eyes and listen closer to the four-beat food call until it’s drowned out by a robin, cascading more elaborately in the humid air. A rustling of leaves alerts me to a young robin, so unlike its adult self—no red breast, a tweed body with ten shades of brown and a speckled crown. It hops to the right of me, in and out of the shrubs. On closer inspection, I can see it has actually lost the baby-white at the edge of its mouth and its feathers are sleeker, just starting to show hints of red. It hops with purpose and flies up onto our bird feeder. Our first visitor! We’ve had the feeders up for a week, but nothing until now. An adult swoops in with authority, the young robin scampers away to the cypress hedge and is gone. The adult puffs out its chest, poses, and calls out beautifully, performing its act of defiance.
We all have a place in this world, our small corner. And we must notice it, tend to it with grace and compassion. Maybe this could be mine, this little corner of County Down, where I can think thoughts, watch birds, and swing gently on a hammock. But is this enough? Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion? I don’t know but smile anyway because with each passing day I am feeling lighter.
Thursday, 16 August
Our garden is thrumming with birds today: coal, blue, and great tits, blackbird, thrush, magpie, jackdaw, rook, all of them reveling on the grass, pecking at the feeders. I could happily watch them all day but rain is coming from the east, so we decide to go west to the coast at Murlough to stay in the sunshine. I usually despise being in the sun. I find its light too bright, its heat too hot, and it can make me feel as if there’s nowhere to hide. But with this rain coming, I feel like being on the dunes at Murlough, pressed by warmth and sea breezes.
The ancient dune system here is six thousand years old, fragile and spectacular. The unusually high dunes were formed in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by massive storms, and were used by people in the Middle Ages as rabbit warrens to provide them with meat and pelts. Grazing rabbits encouraged the grassy heath land here, but when myxomatosis first broke out in the 1950s, as it did in other parts of Ireland and Britain, the rabbit population was almost wiped out. With fewer rabbits, sea buckthorn and sycamore could grow, turning heath to scrubland. Now the National Trust has intervened at Murlough, managing the landscape so it reverts back to heath—and judging from the copious droppings, it looks like the rabbits are thriving again, too.
The day is sparkling, the wind is shaking and shaping the clouds. My brother and sister want to swim, so I stroll along the beach with my binoculars. Shapes out at sea stop me: a trinity of torpedoing gannets. They swoop, wheel, and suddenly drop, spiraling until the last second when they transform into arrows before hitting the water. Swallows are overhead—I can see their small bodies so clearly, weightless and constantly moving. I feel myself rising with them.
My dark, knotted thoughts seem to be staying away at the moment. I feel as free as the gannets and swallows. If they can live their lives, shouldn’t I do the same? Can I breathe 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. What is it that’s holding me back? Anxiety?
Depression? Autism? These are the shackles. Surely, I can break free. Or at least I can accept these things as part of me. I have no answers, but the lightness of these thoughts and these days weave my body and mind with everything around me. The only thing that I am really bound to is nature—as we all are.
My brother and sister are running toward me, and I run to them and then we run together, exultant. We slow down in unison, all feeling the same pull of the large peculiar shells dotted around the beach. We each pick one up and hold them outstretched, delicate porcelain in our hands. They look like pale planets, pockmarked with symmetrical lines. I rattle mine, listening to the whisper of sand and the past. These are sea potatoes—a type of sand-burrowing sea urchin—with pocks that once held spines and a bleached calcium carbonate shell that could so easily shatter on land or at sea. Each one is a miracle. So many miracles washed up at once.
We start to collect them, and my brother decides to name three of the best specimens: “Sandy, Sam and Sandra.” He holds a conversation with them, three sea potatoes, which makes us laugh so hard that tears well up and almost flow, and we’re still laughing as a warm rain starts to fall on us. Under dark skies, I feel completely unburdened of any doubts in my own abilities to help our planet. Instead, I feel energized and ready. Sopping wet and cold and with chattering teeth, still giggling madly, I feel hope pouring in the rain. Being myself is enough. O
Excerpted from Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty (Milkweed Editions, 2021) and reprinted with permission: www.milkweed.org.
Lovely writing and just what was needed this morning here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a city of amazing trees and gardens. So perfect to have another’s view of their miraculous world (our world, The World).
What a gifted writer! Never stop, Dara! Your thoughts, your words, your life makes a difference to so many people as well as the planet.
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