Dara McAnulty’s wonderful wild life

Dara McAnulty. Photo: Elaine Hill

Dara McAnulty. Photo: Elaine Hill - Credit: Archant

In these difficult times, when we seem to be bombarded with negative news from all directions, 16-year-old naturalist Dara McAnulty is encouraging us to take a different perspective and enjoy the wonders of the natural world

Sixteen-year-old Dara McAnulty has taken the world by storm with his Diary of a Young Naturalist, winner of this year’s Wainwright prize for nature writing. It is, judges said, ‘astute and candid’, detailing Dara’s deep love of the natural world, set alongside his experiences of bullying and teenage confusion. He also describes his autism – in his close family of five, only his dad is not autistic – and how it helps shapes his view of the world. Currently in sixth form in Northern Ireland, Dara is studying A-levels in politics, biology, chemistry and maths. Katie Jarvis asked him about life post-lockdown.

Dara, so many of your nature observations are based on life in a suburban garden.

One of the things lockdown has shown us is that there is so much to see under our very noses.

I think, for a lot of us, our minds have been changed to nature during lockdown; we’ve been cooped up in a single space with very little to do. But one of them was to go out into the garden – and a lot of people took solace from that. They got thrust into looking at the incredible world.

Nature has always been a lifeline for you – has that particularly been the case during the virus crisis?

It was a lifeline; it gave me a constant source of wonder. I’ve seen shield bugs – the coolest little insects. They look so alien and so different from every other creature. They’ve got this massive shield on their back and it’s green and pink. You have to look for them: find a bush they like and then really stare at them. What you notice is that they’re incredible. I think many people began to notice all this secret beauty.

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If we learned any lesson during lockdown, what should it to be?

It’s that people remember going out into the garden and seeing these incredible creatures. If we all forgot, then did we just spend these six months doing nothing? When people remember these things that have given them solace, they look to the future and want to see those little things every day; they don’t want to see them disappear. But, if we revert to default-state and continue as if nothing has happened, I would find that incredibly disingenuous.

In your book, you spend hours watching life in a simple bucket – snails and water beetles – or creatures on a stone wall. Clearly your parents deserve credit for your interests. What’s your advice to other parents to get their children motivated?

When children are very young, parents can do things that inadvertently affect what a child thinks. One of the primary ones is, ‘That’s dirty’. Where the child picks up a feather and is told, ‘It’s dirty!’ All connection is basically lost at that point. Parents need to take those negative connotations out of language. In all my long years of picking up conkers, feathers, bird pellets and other random things, I have never once contracted some strange disease. Let your children explore the world in whatever way they wish.

The honesty in your book - your willingness to face unpleasant aspects of life – is hugely admirable. You talk about suffering appalling physical and mental bullying; people calling you ‘a nobody’; a teacher telling your parents you’d never be able to string a paragraph together. Was that hard to write about?

I sort of settled with myself that this book needed to be honest because it was a diary and involved things that make a human a human. If we left out bullying, so many different areas of my brain and character would be completely unexplained, and I knew that from the start. It did take a bit of convincing of myself. And I was like: OK, I’m writing a diary. I’ve just got to do it.

The autism is a really interesting element; it gives you gifts others don’t have. How would you describe those gifts?

I’m in a constant battle to try and do this one. I don’t know how anybody else’s mind works because I haven’t lived in anybody else’s mind. But, from what I’ve been able to tell, when I look out into the world everything seems a lot more intense. I notice things other people may not. That sort of ability to take in a thousand different details at once has been really important to me. It does sometimes mean that I don’t see immediately the connection between all those details, which arrives to me later. But it makes everything feel an awful lot more real almost… I don’t really know.

Is there any hero you’d like to meet?

I haven’t met David Attenborough yet. He’s inspired so many younger people. When Blue Planet or Planet Earth was on, everybody was talking about it. I love people talking about the world we live in.

You’ve tried so hard to get governments to listen to your messages about the environment. If you were to force one change, what would it be?

Choosing one change is rather difficult. But one step in the right direction is for a change in the education system, which feels like it’s focused on spitting us out into the world with no real knowledge of it. I’d love a system that’s more into nature and into helping younger people experience the world in a meaningful way. We’ve so many crises, at the moment, and we know how to solve most of them. The problem is getting people to do it.

Diary of a Young Naturalist is published by Little Toller Books, hardback £16