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‘The Fledglings Are Out!’

Images courtesy of Milkweed Editions

Dara McAnulty | Diary of a Young Naturalist | May 2021 | 1,979 words (7 minutes)


This diary chronicles the turning of my world, from spring to winter, at home, in the wild, in my head. It travels from the west of Northern Ireland in County Fermanagh to the east in County Down. It records the uprooting of a home, a change of county and landscape, and at times the de-rooting of my senses and my mind. I’m Dara, a boy, an acorn. Mum used to call me lon dubh (which is Irish for blackbird) when I was baby, and sometimes she still does. I have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world. The outpourings on these pages express my connection to wildlife, try to explain the way I see the world, and describe how we weather the storms as a family.


Tuesday, 5 June
The garden has blossomed in the warmth of these late spring days. So much light and sunshine, compensating for the heaving tiredness and exasperation that comes, for me, at the end of the school year. Friendship has always eluded me – what is it anyway? A collection of actions and words between two people or more, people who grow and change anyway. It’s a good thing, apparently. That’s what some people say. I don’t have any experience, though. I mean, I play board games with a group at my school. We play, we deconstruct the game. We don’t ‘talk’. What is there to say? Sometimes, I feel that if I start, I might not shut up. That has happened, lots of times. It doesn’t end well. Kids in my class, they walk around town together, they might play football together or whatever other sport takes their fancy. They don’t talk, though. They smirk and snigger at anyone who is different. Unfortunately, for me, I’m different. Different from everyone in my class. Different from most people in my school. But at breaktime today I watched the pied wagtails fly in and out of the nest. How could I feel lonely when there are such things? Wildlife is my refuge. When I’m sitting and watching, grown-ups usually ask if I’m okay. Like it’s not okay just to sit and process the world, to figure things out and watch other species go about their day. Wildlife never disappoints like people can. Nature has a purity to me, unaffected. I watch the wagtail fly out and in again, then step a little closer. Peering in, I see that last week’s eggs are now chicks. Tiny bright-yellow beaks, mouths opening and closing silently. This is the magic. This bird, which dances and hops at everyone’s feet in the playground, unnoticed by most. Its liveliness and clockwork tail, ticking constantly, never touching the ground. It appears again, and the squawking starts in earnest. I giggle inside, in case someone sees. I have to hold so much in, phase so much out. It’s exhausting.

At home, I mooch around the garden and notice the first herb robert flowers, pink wild bloom amongst the verdant. I note it down on my list of firsts in the garden and feel good. I hear Dad come back from work, and with him an injured bat. She’s the first of the year and we tend to it – females only have one pup a year, such precious cargo. We feed it mealworms and put water in a milk-bottle lid. The bat’s mouth is so small I use one of Bláthnaid’s paintbrushes to put droplets on its tongue, hoping it will be something like lapping dewdrops from a leaf or puddle. Dehydration is the main killer of an injured bat, so it’s important to get it to drink. But as they’re getting better they’ll chew up a mealworm like a piece of spaghetti.

They’re such innocuous and timid creatures, not worthy of the silly hype that surrounds the movies and Hallowe’en. They’re insect-controllers: a single pipistrelle eats 3,000 midges a night. Can you imagine the swarms really ruining your camping holiday if we didn’t have healthy numbers of bat populations? It’s unimaginable.

The bat sleeps in my room. They always do because it’s quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the McAnulty family. I always sleep so soundly when I have a bat staying in my room. I hear it scratching about in the night and am never afraid, I am comforted.

Friday, 8 June
I trudge to school with a leaden heart: the bat didn’t make it through the night, and we didn’t lose just one bat, we’ve lost every generation that could have followed. Her injuries, caused by a cat, were too much and she died, Dad thinks, from infection. I feel so heartbroken. I’ve finished all my exams but that isn’t enough to lighten my spirits.

After school, Lorcan and I arrive home to squeals of delight from Mum and Bláthnaid. ‘The fledglings are out! The fledglings are out!’ Mum roars with all the childish delight that many of the kids I know have lost before they’re eight or nine. The excitement is intoxicating, and it spreads into me and I feel a little airy. We watch through the window as a just-emerged coal tit, blue tit and sparrow rest on the branches of the pine trees, open-mouthed, noisy and boisterous and splendiferous.

Watching the discordant gang, I realise that I won’t see them when they’re fully grown. Not if we move house. I’ve been in complete denial about moving house. Tomorrow, though, we’re going house-hunting in County Down, in Castlewellan – a small town six miles from our new school in Newcastle (which Mum and Dad say is too expensive for us to live in). I’m not sure if I feel really annoyed about the whole thing, or whether that tickle I sometimes get thinking about it is a sign of the excitement there might be in starting over again. The opportunity to reinvent myself.

Mum notices my mood shifting. I give her my best broad grin and a hug. It’s not easy for any of us, but she and Dad will do most of the work – and the worrying.
Every day, ever since I can remember, Mum has sat me down, sat us all down, and explained every situation we’ve ever had to deal with. Whether it was going to the park, to the cinema, to someone’s house, to a café. Every time, all manner of things were delicately instructed. Social cues, meanings of gestures, some handy answers if we didn’t know what to say. Pictures, social stories, diagrams, cartoons. Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort. What’s a lot more effort, though, is the work Mum did and does still, so light-heartedly. She tells us it’s because she knows. She knows the confusion. That’s why she and Dad will be doing the worrying about moving, and why Mum will be doing all the planning and mind- mapping, and will somehow know how everything fits together. I’m lucky, very lucky.

Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings.

Saturday, 9 June
The day is glorious. It’s summer weather, I have a new Undertones T-shirt (the ‘My Perfect Cousin’ one) and I feel good wearing it. I don’t know why I love T-shirts with some part of me brandished on them. Maybe it’s because it will either scare people away or start a conversation without me having to do anything. Well, either way, that hasn’t happened yet!

We arrive at the first house for viewing and Mum hates it, I can tell. I don’t like it either. Everything about it is squashed, though we can see the Mourne Mountains from upstairs. The second house is much better but needs a lot of work – the views are extraordinary. Neither of them lights a fire in anyone’s belly, though, so that’s it for today, thankfully. And because it’s still morning we’re going to explore the Castlewellan Forest Park, a government-owned forest with native woods, conifer plantation and red kites. It even has a lake and a mountain path. Lorcan and Bláthnaid have already been but it’s a first for me. It’s so beautiful. I feel a swell of anticipation – if we move here we could live beside a forest. We could be near trees! We might not be crammed in by suburbia anymore. I could ride my bike without worrying about cars.

You see, this is a big deal for us kids. We can’t access nature the way my parents’ generation could. Our exposure to wildlife and wild places has been robbed by modernity and ‘progress’. Our pathways for exploration have been severed by development and roads and pollution. Seriously, you take your life into your own hands if you choose to cycle anywhere in Enniskillen. The roads are congested, busy and unfriendly, especially if, like me, you want to stop and stare. We always have to travel to forest parks or nature reserves for our dose, returning to the starkness of concrete and manicured lawns. To think we could live beside a forest!

The thought keeps echoing and I feel euphoric, almost delirious. We all feel it in the glow of the sun with swallows, house martins and swifts above us, dancing everywhere. So many. I’ve never seen so many all at once. Not all three together. It’s heady and intense. We’re all springing, bouncing off one another with sideway glances and controlled smiles. Hoping and holding it all in.

We find a peace maze in the park, created after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It has 6,000 yew trees and was planted by 5,000 school children and others from the nearby community. We rage through it until we come to a rope bridge. I stop and get out my binoculars: red kites, three of them, wheeling and soaring, ascending, dropping right over our heads. It’s staggering. We gawp at the sky and you can feel our family agreement travelling through us, silently: this might be a good place to live.

Exhausted after the long drive and the day’s events, we head back to Granny’s house in Warrenpoint, where we’re staying tonight. My Granny Elsie has amazing views from her back garden. We can see Carlingford Lough and the Mournes and the Cooley Mountains. Every day looks different there, with subtle changes of colour or the way the clouds sit then disperse on the mountains. Today, the sparrows are chattering and the sun is still high. We decide we need another walk along the beach before we get dinner.

We do a beach clean as we go, but not too much today, which gives us plenty of time for exploring. Lorcan has the best find of the day: a cuttlefish bone smoothed by the sea, silk-soft. The bones, which are not really bones at all but a shell, are usually from the females who die a few weeks after breeding, and the dead cephalopods’ skeletons are later washed up on the beach. Lorcan’s find has the kind of piddock holes that we normally see in soft rocks and clays, and there still seems to be life inside them so we carry it back to the sea before it dries out. We find another, bone-dry, which we bring back to Granny Elsie’s.

Later that night, in the darkness, sharing a room with Lorcan, we talk about the move in hushed tones and excitement, until we both sink like stones into sleep.

Excerpted from Diary of a Young Naturalist. Published by Milkweed Editions.


Dara McAnulty is the author Diary of a Young Naturalist, forthcoming in Spring 2021. He is the recipient of the Wainwright Prize for nature writing. Dara lives with his mum, dad, brother Lorcan, sister Bláthnaid and rescue greyhound Rosie in County Down, Northern Ireland. Dara’s love for nature, his activism and his honesty about autism, has earned him a huge social media following from across the world and many accolades: in 2017 he was awarded BBC Springwatch ‘Unsprung Hero’ Award and Birdwatch magazine ‘Local Hero’; in 2018 he was awarded ‘Animal Hero’ of the year by the Daily Mirror and became ambassador for RSPCA and the iWill campaign; in 2019 he became a Young Ambassador for the Jane Goodall Institute and became the youngest ever recipient of the RSPB Medal for conservation.

Why I Discuss My Son’s Autism on Social Media

Longreads Pick

A personal essay in which Alysia Abbott writes about the importance of presenting her autistic son on social media — fostering inclusiveness, normalizing his differences, connecting with other parents with similar children — and confesses her tendency to often only show him in the most flattering light.

Source: Dame Magazine
Published: Oct 30, 2019
Length: 9 minutes (2,316 words)

My Child Has a Disability. What Will Her Education Be Like This Year?

Longreads Pick

“We’re starting the school year with few details about how our fourth grader’s needs will be met.” Millions of disabled students are adjusting to online learning, and the support services that parents have fought for are now at risk.

Published: Sep 15, 2020
Length: 10 minutes (2,632 words)

Life on Screen: A Reality Television Reading List

Illustration by Carolyn Wells

By Elizabeth Blackwell

When the first season of Survivor premiered more than 20 years ago, I was immediately hooked by the concept: real people battling the elements and each other — while I got to watch from the comfort of my couch. Like the millions of Americans who tuned in alongside me, I assumed the winner would be someone who could fish and hunt, start a fire from scratch, and charm their fellow contestants — not a guy who lied his way to the big payout (and later went to jail twice for failing to pay taxes on those winnings). When Big Brother premiered not long afterward, I couldn’t understand how anyone in that pre-Twitch live stream era would agree to be on camera 24 hours a day.

America — and I — have since become a lot less naive.

“Reality TV” is often used as shorthand for the genre of entertainment that Survivor and Big Brother ushered in: competition-based, personality-driven shows featuring finger-waving drama queens, buff would-be influencers, and first-person “confessionals” where shade is thrown and scores are settled. They’re the broadcast version of fast food: a guilty pleasure, shunned by some. I’ve become a reality TV connoisseur over the years — from MTV’s The Real World when I was fresh out of college, to the full spectrum of HGTV makeover shows as a mother-of-three suburbanite. And while there’s plenty to mock, the rise of so-called unscripted television has also brought a revolutionary change in the kind of people we see on our screens and our perception of others’ lived “reality.” 

The original Queer Eye celebrated its five gay cast members as unthreatening, all-around good guys at a time when the U.S. government was seriously considering a Constitutional amendment against gay marriage. Two decades later, even the most mainstream home-design shows regularly feature same-sex couples, with no one batting an eye. Influential shows such as Project Runway and Top Chef demonstrate the staggering amount of work it takes to create a work of art, whether a gala-worthy gown or a perfectly puffed souffle. American Idol and its many successors show us how much talent exists in overlooked pockets of our country — and how quickly the musical-industrial complex spits out the small-town singers whose hopes they’ve raised. 

For all the critiques of reality TV as trashy and stupid, it’s one of the few spaces in entertainment that’s genuinely inclusive, age-wise and socioeconomically. You may not want to watch a Love Island hookup with Grandma and the kids, but the vast majority of reality shows avoid sex, swearing, and violence, an underappreciated factor in the genre’s popularity. With the rise of prestige TV — and its tortured Mafiosi, drug-dealing science teachers, and dour 1960s ad execs — reality shows became a refuge for audiences who preferred to avoid gruesome killings and anguished moral dilemmas during family TV time. Once I had children, reality programming became our go-to choice: So You Think You Can Dance when my daughter was a toddler, twirling her way across the family room; The Amazing Race when my kids were in elementary school and getting curious about the larger world; Selling Sunset this summer, with my oldest back from college, the two of us cackling over the latest manufactured catfight. 

Is it so terrible to crave the simple, straightforward, lowest-common-denominator entertainment that reality TV provides? In our current frayed-nerves world, you could even argue it’s a public service. 

The writers in this list demonstrate that reality TV is a rich source for cultural commentary, whether you’re a superfan, a critic, or someone who understands when a cooking show isn’t really about cooking. 

Rachel Lindsay Has No Roses Left to Burn (Rachel Lindsay as told to Allison P. Davis, Vulture, June 2021)

The Bachelor, which premiered in 2002, was a show at which I initially rolled my eyes, thinking: It will never last. (Around the same time, I decided not to put my paltry work retirement savings into Amazon stock, for similar reasons.) But The Bachelor not only survived; it’s now been around long enough to face some well-deserved backlash for its creaky view of gender relations and lack of diversity. Attorney Rachel Lindsay was cast as the first Black Bachelorette in an attempt to shift that narrative. She agreed because she wanted viewers to see a woman like her “at the center of a love story.” In a sense, it worked: Lindsay is now married to a man she met on the show. 

But things weren’t so picture-perfect behind the scenes. In this piece, Lindsay calls out the ways the franchise and its producers betrayed her trust, superficially embracing change while casting potential suitors based on their potential to get into racially tinged fights. A pull-no-punches account of the real-life hurt reality dating shows can leave behind, Lindsay’s story offers a pointed lesson in self-empowerment. If someone claims they’ve changed but resists repeated attempts to fix the problem — whether it’s a boyfriend or a long-running TV powerhouse — it’s best to walk away. 

I couldn’t be like the Bachelorettes who had come before — somebody who was still living at home with her parents, who had “pageant queen” on her résumé. I was a lawyer. My father was a federal judge. I had a squeaky-clean record. I had to be a good Black girl, an exceptional Black girl. I had to be someone the viewer could accept. And I was a token until I made sure I wasn’t. 

Inside the Real Housewives’ Feminism (Sadaf Ahsan, This Magazine, November 2021)

The Real Housewives franchise has long had a wink-wink, nudge-nudge understanding with its audience, which Sadaf Ahsan acknowledges in this appreciation of a show that cultural scolds take all too seriously. We all know that these women’s lives aren’t “real.” Whether they live in Atlanta, Beverly Hills, or Dubai, the cast members’ faces have been Botoxed and dermabrasioned to a smooth, uncanny sameness; the outfits are blinged out and cleavage-baring; and someone will inevitably claim to hate “drama” while loudly repeating the shady thing her so-called friend said at a drunken dinner party. By reframing the show as a “televised comic book,” Ahsan argues that these ladies are subversive superheroes. Sure, they may look cartoonish, but how often does traditional entertainment put older women at the center of the action? Can’t every woman — self-avowed feminist or not — identify with their hunger to stay relevant in a society that’s all-too-ready to write them off?

While there is no mistaking that they can be brash, tacky ($25,000 for a pair of sunglasses!), and oh so ear-piercingly loud … it’s also ignorant to say they are only this. For 15 years, these women have lived their lives on screen, experiencing the greatest heartbreak—from their partners’ deaths to their children moving out and on—and have showcased the powerful bond of lifelong friendships at an older age like no other television series has since Sex and the City. There is bad, certainly, but there is also tremendous good that comes with a side of laughter.

The Reality Behind ‘Below Deck’ (Caity Weaver, The New York Times, June 2020) 

Thanks to what I assume are ironclad NDAs, it’s rare to hear stories from behind the cameras of reality TV. Who designs all those over-the-top obstacle courses for Survivor? Exactly how staged is any given Kardashian conversation? And how in the world do you capture all the antics of the crew and passengers in the confined spaces of a luxury yacht? It’s a question that’s nagged at me ever since I got sucked into the world of Below Deck, my latest I-know-I-should-stop-watching-but-maybe-just-one-more-episode obsession. 

Luckily for me, Caity Weaver was invited aboard to find out. With the glee of an unabashed fan, she explains how the boat is wired for sound and stocked with hidden cameras to catch every minute of the action (on this show, at least, nothing is staged). She watches as the producers’ affection for the cast (“Don’t hurt yourself!” one pleads while watching footage on a monitor) battles against “their incurable addiction to drama.” It’s an entertaining lesson in how much reality TV is created in the editing room, where small-scale mishaps are transformed into high-stakes action. 

Just as one needn’t be a wind turbine technician to appreciate a warm summer breeze, no knowledge of, or even interest in, boats, or the sea, is required to enjoy 900 hours of “Below Deck.” The most fundamental element is the ship’s hierarchy, which simultaneously commands and receives no respect. Multiple seasons in, the landlocked viewer may yet be unable to articulate even one specific duty of a lead deckhand — but what the viewer will know, and will demand, is that he not speak to the bosun like that ever again if he wants to continue serving on this ship.

Season 2 of ‘Love on the Spectrum’ Is A Reminder Of What’s Wrong with Neurotypical Dating (Jae L., Autistic Discovery, May 2021)

The best reality television shows capture a truly human experience. Little People, Big World — which has been running off and on since 2006 — depicts a family with dwarfism not as oddities or objects of pity, but simply as farmers living their lives. Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum — which showcases autistic people navigating the dating world — may have intended to fill a similar niche. However, in this essay, Jae L. — who is also autistic — points out the inherent contradiction in the concept: If dating is about finding a person you genuinely connect with, why does the show have a “relationship coach” who teaches the importance of eye contact, body language, and polite listening, which are skills that many autistic people struggle with? Why should they have to mold themselves to the conventions of neurotypical behavior? Reading this piece made me realize how even the most well-meaning attempts at inclusion can fall short, especially when people are forced into a TV format that pathologizes their differences. 

The date-as-interview approach is awkward for anyone: no-one likes to be interrogated. But open-ended questions can be especially confronting for autistic people. For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced low-level panic every time someone asks, “What are your hobbies?” or “What music do you like to listen to?” Yet this particular practice is drummed into the cast members. Unsurprisingly, the conversation is stilted and has nowhere to go. 

The Great British Baking Show and the Meaning of Life (Eliot A. Cohen, The Atlantic, October 2020)

During the early months of the pandemic lockdown, I steadfastly avoided The Great British Baking Show when it occasionally popped up on my Netflix suggestions. I’d heard it had a cult following, but with my family home 24-7, I’d been doing more cooking than ever before. Escapism, for me, meant watching anything that didn’t involve food. 

And then, one insomnia-plagued night, I succumbed — and couldn’t stop. Once I acknowledged that I’d never make any of those complicated pastries myself, it was fun to watch other people tackle them, but it was the “British” part of the show that kept me hooked. Hearing terms like “Victoria sponge” and “Eton mess” tossed around in a range of regional accents gave me the same Anglophile rush I used to get from Downton Abbey

The Brits have long romanticized the “simple pleasures situated in some lovely part of rural England,” writes Eliot A. Cohen in this Atlantic piece. What makes The Great British Baking Show so appealing, he says, is its embrace of traditional aesthetics — the immaculate white tent on the grounds of a historic home — alongside modern Britain’s multicultural reality. Teacakes are baked with Indian spices; a Caribbean family recipe is transformed into high art. Though it may represent the “imaginary, comfortable Britain for which many Americans have a particular fondness,” Cohen makes the case that this particular flavor of reality TV might restore our faith in humanity. It did for me. 

The bakers are (carefully curated, no doubt) representatives of the British nation. There are college students and grandmothers; carpenters and lawyers; soldiers, sailors, and personal trainers; immigrants (or their descendants) of varying hue from Hong Kong and Jamaica and Mumbai. They are remarkably nice to one another. 

To watch The Great British Baking Show is to believe that the average guy and gal can do remarkable things, that good nature is compatible with excellence, that high achievement will be recognized, that honest feedback can lead to improvement, that there are things to life beyond work. It is to believe that spectacular creativity can actually be scrumptious. 


Elizabeth Blackwell is the author of While Beauty Slept, On a Cold Dark Sea, and Red Mistress. She lives outside Chicago with her family and stacks of books she is absolutely, positively going to read one day. 

Editor: Carolyn Wells
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Airbrushing Out the Evidence of Her Son’s Differences

For Dame, Alysia Abbott writes a personal essay about the importance of presenting her autistic son on social media — fostering inclusiveness, normalizing his differences, connecting with other parents with similar children — but also confesses her tendency to only show him in the most flattering light.

I could select which photos I would share online. I would highlight those with his eyes open, his gaze steady, maybe the rare shot where he does look at me with a smile. At the right angle, and in the right light, Finn truly is beautiful. Friends and “friends” alike have commented on how much he resembles a young Paul McCartney. He has the full cheeks the cupid bow mouth the large brown eyes and soft mop of hair. Without fail, I will share those photos where that beauty is on display.

Here’s what you won’t see: images where he looks developmentally delayed, what we used to call “mentally retarded,” or just “retarded.”

I actually remember a turning point on trip to a local apple orchard when my son was maybe 3 years old. We say we go apple-picking in order to make fresh crumbles and apple sauce but we all know it’s really about the family photo op. Sipping cider on hayrides, small children sitting in a great big pumpkin patch–what could be more quintessentially wholesome and fall-like? On this particular visit, there was a beautiful late afternoon light and I was posing Finn inside a large apple crate, where he seemed happy to sit and play in the leaves. Later that night, scrolling through photos deciding which to share, I found one that captured an expression I’d never noticed on my son before, a slightly twisted open mouth grin that looked different, that looked more autistic. At the time I had a hard time seeing Finn’s diagnosis with any clarity. This photo helped me do this, but it wasn’t a photo I wanted to share.

With social media, I was able to create an idealized version of my son, writing posts that can accurately describe our days together, but accompanying these posts with photos that make him look like any other kid his age. In this online life, I could erase those aspects of his presentation, that peculiar autistic mien, that might make others uncomfortable.

Read the story

The Silent Farm for Developmental Disabilities

Photo by Jesús Hellín/ Europa Press via Getty Images

This gentle essay by Mark Mann for Beside takes us into the understated world of David and Peter, who share a friendship spanning four decades, yet no words. Peter’s form of down syndrome means he is non-verbal, so ever since David first became his support worker they have been finding other ways to communicate — beginning with artmaking, to gardening, and ultimately, to farming. When David bought a 25-acre farm in 1998 he realized it was a place where he could “break the limitations imposed on people with developmental disabilities.” Abhorring the condescension he sometimes saw Peter face, on the farm David lets Peter take the lead in the quiet routines of  “preparing and sharing meals, tending to a few animals, and passing the time.”

This essay radiates with the peace that David has created for Peter in their silent sanctuary. It may not be a productive farm, but “rather than crops or yields, David and Peter’s harvest is each little detail noticed and celebrated: a trusting moment that passes between Peter and one of the horses, or the bright red sumac buds that David hangs above the kitchen table.”

Inspired by what David and Peter were doing at the Farm, others began joining them. David and Peter were connected to a larger network of families with members who were on the autism spectrum and used no spoken language, and some of these men became regulars. Neighbours started dropping in regularly, and friends and acquaintances from around Ontario began making the trip, to lend a hand and savour the atmosphere. (I was one of those, for several years.) The numbers have ebbed and flowed, but a small community has always coalesced around the Farm: loose, evolving, and delightfully unlikely. Today, it’s mainly just Peter and his close friend Kevin. Kevin doesn’t use spoken language either, but he, Peter, and David have found a rich and subtle terrain of conversation that goes beyond words: gestures, body language, touch, and eye contact.

… if everyone is feeling well, they make a trip to the barn. The 300-foot journey is as slow and deliberate as a religious procession, especially across the winter snow and ice. Once arrived, the atmosphere inside the barn is precisely like a cathedral, with its sombre light and air of stillness. One feels an instinct to whisper, and, like Peter and Kevin, to take careful, quiet steps.

The first order of business is to feed and water the sheep. On this particular day, we discover that one of the ewes has given birth. The little newborn is already skittering around on four legs while keeping close to its mother. Seeing the lamb, the quietness among the men intensifies. For several long minutes, they hover in the corner, taking in the scene. Kevin reaches out and removes some straw from Peter’s hat.

Read the essay

The Substance of Silence: A Reading List About Hermits

A white house perches on a craggy island, surrounded by water.
Photo: Bruce Yuanyue Bi/Getty Images

By Chris Wheatley

Call them recluses, hermits, or even solitudinarians, examples of folk choosing to live a life apart from their fellow humans are as old as the written word. Many, but not all, of these ancient hermits were motivated by spiritual reasons; in medieval times, anchoresses and anchorites volunteered to be physically sealed into stone chambers abutting churches or monasteries, providing themselves with a literal barrier from the world. Such intentional isolation, in the religious sphere, is often associated with profound wisdom and spiritual pureness — qualities said to arise from a renunciation of material comforts. Hermits have never been confined to the theological world, however. There have always been instances of “ordinary” people living purposefully solitary existences, be it in the remote wilderness or amid the hustle and bustle of modern cities.

To some of us, the idea of such isolation seems terrifying. To others, the thought of an extended period of peace and quiet, a chance to step back and reconnect with ourselves, holds an undeniable appeal. How many of us, though, would be comfortable with the notion of living in solitude for weeks, months, years, even decades? It has long been held that humans are social creatures, and mental health experts are quick to warn against the debilitating effects of loneliness. But weighted against this are numerous stories of those who have discovered great solace in the solitary life.

What remains inarguable is that our fascination with those who chose to live a life removed endures to this day. How can someone exist in this manner, we feel compelled to ask, and why would they choose to do so, considering (or perhaps because of) the modern world’s affordances? The articles curated below delve deep into the mysterious and compelling world of hermits, and surface with some surprising, even moving answers to that very question.

Day of a Stranger (Thomas Merton, Hudson Review, July 1967)

The writer, theologian, social activist, and monk Thomas Merton makes for an unlikely example of a maverick, but certainly that is how he was regarded among many of his peers in the Christian faith. Merton was born in France, his father a New Zealand-born painter, his mother an American Quaker and artist. The family soon settled in the United States, where Merton would eventually enter into the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Catholic monastery in Kentucky. For the last few years of his life he lived alone as a hermit within the Abbey grounds.

For a comprehensive history of Merton’s life and works, together with audio samples and much more, visit the website of The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.

A gentle, peaceful character with a deeply poetic soul, Merton was a man ahead of his time, a proponent of interfaith understanding during an era in which such an enterprise could be considered provocative, even heretical. Merton engaged in spiritual dialogue with the Dalai Lama, esteemed Japanese Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, doing much to bring these figures and their philosophies to the attention of the Western world. His 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, caused a seismic shift in the collective consciousness of the American public. In the piece below, the theologian himself writes with moving simplicity, eloquence, and passion on the solitary life and the madness of the modern world.

One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife. Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world.

The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit (Michael Finkel, GQ, August 2014)

Many of us, I suspect, have experienced a disconnect during a social encounter, whether it be because of a generational gap, a difference in socioeconomic backgrounds, or because the person with whom you are communicating hails from an entirely different part of the globe, with an unfamiliar language and unknown customs. In today’s hyper-connected world, however, it’s almost impossible not to find commonalities of experience. Most of us share the same daily concerns, and the majority are aware of significant global and cultural events. Imagine, however, that you had intentionally cut yourself off from “history” for close to three decades. What would it be like to find yourself thrust back into society, forced to live among people with whom you share little to no common ground?

A 23-minute documentary on Christopher Knight, The True Legend of the North Pond Hermit, by filmmaker and actress Lena Friedrich, is free to watch via Vimeo.

This is exactly what happened to Christopher Knight, who spent 27 years living in a tent in the wilderness in Maine, only venturing forth at night to steal food and other items necessary for his survival, before his eventual capture and arrest. What followed, as recounted in this article, tells us much about the modern world, but perhaps the most fascinating element here is the question of exactly why Knight disappeared into the woods, and why he never willingly returned. In order to discover more about the man and his story, writer Michael Finkel had to gain the trust, and eventual friendship of sorts, of a man who could barely recall how to communicate with his fellow humans, or tolerate such interaction for long. Finkel writes movingly of his efforts and emotions during this process.

“I don’t know your world,” he said. “Only my world, and memories of the world before I went into the woods. What life is today? What is proper? I have to figure out how to live.” He wished he could return to his camp—”I miss the woods”—but he knew by the rules of his release that this was impossible. “Sitting here in jail, I don’t like what I see in the society I’m about to enter. I don’t think I’m going to fit in. It’s too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia.”

The Peculiar Case of a Modern-Day Hermit (Paul Willis, Vice, November 2015)

In this essay, writer Paul Willis chronicles a time in his life when he felt driven to escape a hectic New York existence — not just to experience the hermit life, but to reconcile the contrasting views of the phenomenon itself. Why is it, he asks, that although psychologists have long been aware of the mental health risks of isolation, stories persist of individuals thriving in such conditions? Could it be that some of us are simply more suited to a solitary existence? Moreover, if humans are social creatures, why do many hermits report feelings of profound peace, freedom, and oneness arising from a life bereft of social interaction?

To attempt to answer these questions, Willis headed out in search of Arizona’s ghost towns, abandoned relics of the mid-1800’s copper rush, and the hermits rumored to inhabit them. In our minds, recluses tend to fall into one of two categories — those with a tragic backstory, deserving of our compassion and understanding, and those who are perfectly content with their solitary lives, whose privacy we dare not interfere with. In the person of Virgil Snyder, Willis finds a soul who seems to exhibit both extremes. Everyone has a story; this is a cliché, but also a truth. Who we are now is the culmination of the events that have shaped our history. Virgil Snyder’s story is as touching and troubling as it is commonplace. Perhaps that is exactly what makes him so interesting.

His beard was shorter than in the photo and he wore a grey pullover that hung limp over his sleight frame. He wanted to know if I had brought him beer and when I told him I had, he said he knew he liked me from the moment he saw me. I told him about a woman I met in Cleator, who had told me she thought Virgil was more free than anyone she knew. He shrugged and said he couldn’t care less what others thought.

Mystery Man: Will Anyone Ever Know the Real Story Behind the Leatherman? (Jon Campbell, Village Voice, June 2015)

Hermits have always been considered mysterious, unpredictable, even dangerous. This speaks to our innate fear of difference. How can we trust someone who refuses to live a “normal” life? The reality, of course, is that those who live in “civilized” society, dressing to our standards and abiding by our ways, are no more or less likely to prove treacherous. Nevertheless, hermits, by wont of their unconventionality, continue to be figures of enduring fascination, attracting distrust and curiosity in equal measure.

Read an interview with Dan DeLuca about his book, The Old Leather man.

In this article, Jon Campbell meets a man obsessed with unknotting the riddle of one such character: the “Leatherman,” who, over a 30-year period in the mid-to-late 1800s, caused such a stir in the northeastern United States that stories and myths pertaining to him endure to this day. The Leatherman story reveals much about our need to understand the hermit’s motives and thoughts. What we don’t know about someone, we are likely to invent, and so it is proven here. Will we ever know the truth? Perhaps the real question at the heart of the Leatherman legend is why we remain so driven to find out.

Leatherman was frequently described in newspaper accounts as intelligent. His eyes would light up as if he understood what people said to him; he simply chose not to respond. Recently some researchers have posited the idea that Leatherman may have fallen somewhere along the autism spectrum. They cite as evidence his obvious discomfort around people, his rigid adherence to a schedule, his meticulous craftsmanship.

The Oracle of Oyster River (Brian Payton, Hakai Magazine, September 2018)

The subject of this piece by journalist Brian Payton is an extraordinary man named Charles Brandt. At the time of the writing of this piece, Brandt, a Catholic priest, had been living in his self-made hermitage off Canada’s Pacific Coast for nearly 50 years. Despite this isolation, Brandt kept in touch with the world on his own terms, working as a writer, naturalist, ornithologist, and book conservator. What makes this story especially poignant is that Brandt’s personal journey was very much inspired by the author of the first entry on this list, Thomas Merton — a beautiful circularity. So large has Merton’s influence been on Brandt that the latter even named his hermitage Merton House. The two men even met once, at the Abbey of Gethsemani, before Brandt settled into his island home.

It is fascinating to see that, unlike many of the other hermits on this list, Brandt managed to find a balance, enjoying a life of peace, meditation, and quiet reflection, while still engaging with society in vital ways. His work preserving treasured books, and seeking to preserve the natural ecology he treasured to an even greater extent, is as moving as it is inspiring.

“We really have to fall in love with the natural world”—this is Brandt’s refrain. To save something you need to love it, to love something you need to consider it sacred, he says. “Your wife or your children or the natural world. Only the sense of the sacred will save us.”


Chris Wheatley is a writer and journalist based in Oxford, UK. He has too many guitars, too many records, and not enough cats.

Editor: Peter Rubin
Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Sometimes a Coat Is Just a Coat, and Sometimes It Ruins a Kid’s Life

A black trench coat hangs on a mannequin against a light gray background
Photo by Housing Works Thrift Shops (CC BY 2.0).

For The Oregonian, Bethany Barnes takes an in-depth look at the experience of 16-year-old Sanders, an autistic high school student put through an extensive “threat assessment” (aka, “We think you might be the next school shooter”). Are threat assessments effective? What happens when the behaviors flagged for a threat assessment overlap the symptoms with totally separate physical or neurological issues?

It was easy to figure out why the teen’s attire worried people. Sanders’ signature piece of clothing was a big black trench coat.

Years ago, Mark gave Sanders the riding coat he picked up on a youthful adventure in Australia. Sanders loved the weight of the coat. As a person on the autism spectrum, he welcomed the heaviness. It provided comfort in a world that often overwhelmed him. He wore it no matter the weather. With pride, he would note that when it gets above 85 degrees, it will be 104 degrees inside the coat, a fact he learned in science class. He was so associated with the coat that one time he didn’t wear it, he was marked absent by mistake. Sanders eventually wore out Mark’s old coat and his grandma got him a new one for Christmas.

Now, what had begun as a beloved hand-me-down, an armor that made Sanders feel secure and protected from the world, made him vulnerable.

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Yentl Syndrome: A Deadly Data Bias Against Women

Illustration by Homestead

Caroline Criado Perez | An excerpt adapted from Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men | Harry N. Abrams | 22 minutes (5,929 words)

In the 1983 film Yentl, Barbra Streisand plays a young Jewish woman in Poland who pretends to be a man in order to receive an education. The film’s premise has made its way into medical lore as “Yentl syndrome,” which describes the phenomenon whereby women are misdiagnosed and poorly treated unless their symptoms or diseases conform to that of men. Sometimes, Yentl syndrome can prove fatal.

If I were to ask you to picture someone in the throes of a heart attack, you most likely would think of a man in his late middle age, possibly overweight, clutching at his heart in agony. That’s certainly what a Google image search offers up. You’re unlikely to think of a woman: heart disease is a male thing. But this stereotype is misleading. A recent analysis of data from 22 million people from North America, Europe, Asia and Australasia found that women from lower socio-economic backgrounds are 25% more likely to suffer a heart attack than men in the same income bracket.

Since 1989, cardiovascular disease has been the leading cause of death in US women and, following a heart attack, women are more likely to die than men. This disparity in deaths has been the case since 1984, and young women appear to be particularly at risk: in 2016 the British Medical Journal reported that young women were almost twice as likely as men to die in hospital. This may be in part because doctors aren’t spotting at-risk women: in 2016, the American Heart Association also raised concerns about a number of risk-prediction models “commonly used” in patients with acute coronary syndrome, because they were developed in patient populations that were at least two-thirds male. The performance of these risk-prediction models in women “is not well established.”

Common preventative methods may also not work as well in women. Acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) has been found to be effective in preventing a first heart attack in men, but a 2005 paper found that it had a “nonsignificant” effect in women aged between forty-five and sixty-five. Prior to this study, the authors noted, there had been “few similar data in women.” A more recent study from 2011 found that not only was aspirin ineffective for women, it was potentially harmful “in the majority of patients.” Similarly, a 2015 study found that taking a low dose of aspirin every other day “is ineffective or harmful in the majority of women in primary prevention” of cancer or heart disease. Read more…

Take Two $275 Herbal Supplements and Don’t Call Me in the Morning

An interior view of a goop pop-up shop in Newport Beach, CA, 2017. (Photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages via AP Images)

“Why do we all not feel well? And what can we do about it?” asks GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow’s much-mocked wellness empire. The answer might be “Visualize your aura and shove a rock into your vadge for good measure,” but it might also be “Get the medical community to realize how badly it’s failing women.” At The Baffler, Jessa Crispin wonders about the “curious feminist logic of GOOP” and how the internet is decentralizing and democratizing medicine, for better or worse.

This is, of course, the same internet that tells women their children’s autism is caused by vaccines and that Goop uses to distribute its theory that walking barefoot on the grass helps realign the electromagnetic fields of the body. It’s also the same internet I turned to when I was vomiting up the iron supplements the doctor prescribed for my chronic anemia. He refused to give me anything else, other than the suggestion to “eat more spinach,” but an online forum told me about the easily absorbed nettle tea, which I have been using effectively to control my anemia for years. It’s also the same internet that told me I had scabies or syphilis when really I had an allergic reaction to my soap, and the same internet that tells me my coffee beans carry a toxic mold and are slowly killing me…

Viewed against the sobering backdrop of Western medical history, the Goop turn in female self-treatment can be seen as more than just another jaded journalistic narrative about delusional women and their soft-headed disbelief in science. In important respects, it is also an attempt to wrest control and authority back from a medical community that has mistreated women for centuries. A male-dominated medical world is no longer the authority on the female body—I am, with the help of online message boards, Goop newsletters, and random Google searches for things like “why is my discharge like this” or “how do I get rid of wrinkles” or “can a person eat nightshades and not die.” We could be regressing, then, to something like the oral medical tradition of the medieval midwife, where knowledge is come across sporadically, where anecdote is given as much credence as experimentation, and the knowledge base is decentralized.

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