March 1, 2021

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Let the travel work for you

The remarkable Dara McAnulty and his connection with nature

4 min read

The first flowers of my life were sky-blue speedwell and scarlet pimpernel. They grew among the mosses of the gravelled dustbin yard behind our “dining rooms” on the road from Brighton station to the sea.

They made a fingertips offering to my mother at the bubbling chip pans in the kitchen. She was born among country flowers and made Christmas wine from dandelion blossoms. I was sent up the hill with a bucket to a churchyard where they glowed among the tombs.

When wartime moved us to the white-cliff edge of town, a passion for flowers sprang up in me. I ransacked abandoned gardens for roses, climbed a cliff for clove-scented stocks, scoured the town dump for golden Californian poppies. Later, on my bike, I rode out to the woods of the Weald for sheaves of bluebells, brought sagging over my handlebars.

I did not take flowers to school. Nor would Dara McAnulty have dared do so – he was already different enough. Now he has a school eco-group, waves banners for Extinction Rebellion and implores “everyone I meet” to leave a wild patch in their gardens for dandelions, which he loves.

Dazzling grace

Dara, who is 16 and from Northern Ireland, is the author of Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller, £16), his first book and winner of the notable Wainwright Prize. Written with dazzling grace and passion, it warrants promotion as a classic, both of nature’s solace to the human spirit and as a rare and moving insight into autism.

He is one of a remarkable family, who live “close as otters” near Castlewellan at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. His biologist father works in conservation. His mother, brother Lorcan and young sister Blathnaid all share in autism, mutually negotiating its tensions with the world.

Just as dandelions close when raindrops fall, Dara says, the bullying at school made him close himself off. Mockery of his joy and enthusiasm for nature meant “holding back and holding in”. He was constantly anxious and self-doubting and afraid of talking too much if he began.

A little of this comes to many childhoods, but for Dara it was a day-to-day oppression. The natural world was his refuge. When his dad brought home injured bats for nursing they shared the quietness of Dara’s bedroom. He found their scratching comforting and slept well – something else he didn’t talk about at school.

Throughout this time, the McAnulty children and their mother (a working-class graduate, like her husband) joined in slow, late-evening walks and outings to forests and streams. They found beetles, birds and butterflies and there were feathers and shells to bring home. They were all fitted into their lives from a knowledgeable father and the picture books and field guides on the shelves.

A holiday cottage on Rathlin Island let Dara spend yet more hours watching birds. “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.”

A move from Fermanagh to Antrim brought a new school, a first friend, and diary notes to celebrate whole weeks without bullying. Soft “code words” from his mother helped Dara approach and feel safe with intimidating, noisy gatherings of people.

Bold public activism

His steps from this to his bold public activism have been remarkable, urged on by a growing distress about human treatment of the natural world. It needed new resources of energy and self-command, something he felt poured into him among the “clouds and granite” on the tops of the Mournes.

Braving times when a nervous sweat “was dripping from my head into my shoes”, he met MPs and government officials, bore placards in a school strike for climate and nature, spoke at teacher conferences and from campaign platforms (once in Hyde Park). He wrote articles, made radio programmes, was on TV with Chris Packham, and received awards. Among them, he became the youngest-ever recipient of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds medal for conservation.

It was outside “Dublin’s Dead Zoo” at an Extinction Rebellion demo with banners and drums that Dara first felt like a rebel. A microphone launched him on “declaring out loud, my anger rising . . . It feels energised and raw”.

Much of the power of his book, however, lies in its quieter pages, their month-by-month chronicle of exploration. It chimes with a current discovery of nature, as months of lockdown sent parents and children into gardens and to hedges, often with camera phones poised for Eye on Nature.

Like the McAnultys, any family that sets out to explore the lives of other creatures in the world seems bound to invite a new and inspiring togetherness.

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