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It is a challenging time to be 16 and, like his peers, Dara McAnulty must currently endure a form of house arrest that means no seeing friends, no GCSEs. Unlike other locked-down teens, McAnulty is also dealing with the harsh mischance of having his first book, Diary of a Young Naturalist, published during the coronavirus crisis. He was supposed to be touring festivals but every date is cancelled. “I feel like my being is suffering from a slow puncture,” McAnulty tweeted in March. “I honestly feel like my world is falling apart right now.”
When we meet via a video call a month later, his mood has lifted. Lockdown is tough. His mum, Róisín – who McAnulty likes to have by his side, discreetly, during interviews – contracted coronavirus quite severely; meanwhile, he feels “trapped” and is “bouncing around the house like a ping pong ball”. Mercifully, over the road from their modern housing estate is a wood where he takes his daily exercise. “If I didn’t have it, I would be utterly insane,” he says. “The ground there is alive with peacock butterflies”, and that morning, he saw a red squirrel “so that makes the day”, he grins.
There is a genuine buzz around his debut, a combination of nature book and memoir, a warm portrait of a close-knit family and a coming-of-age story. Robert Macfarlane has hailed his “extraordinary voice and vision”; Chris Packham has become a friend; Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes, called him “inspiring”. The teenager’s environmental activism has led to comparisons with Greta Thunberg.
McAnulty is autistic, and it would be easy to file his book alongside Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar which gave a vivid insight into the naturalist’s Asperger’s but Dara has his own style. Simple, gorgeous sentences unfurl, one after another. Of a hot summer’s day, he writes: “Dragonflies are whizzing, grasshoppers are trembling in the grass, and swallows are everywhere.” Or: “The valley sings, heaves and rests.” There are original, imaginative descriptions too – caterpillars move “like slow-motion accordions” and a goshawk chick looks “like an autumn forest rolled in the first snows of winter”.
He lives with his dad, Paul, mum and younger siblings, Lorcan and Bláthnaid, in a small rented three-bedroom house in Castlewellan, Northern Ireland. As a young child, Dara loved to bang on about black holes to anyone who would listen, and was diagnosed as autistic when he was five. In fact, Róisín, Lorcan and Bláthnaid are also autistic; only Paul, a conservation scientist, is not. The teenager describes his family as “as close as otters”. They are also punk lovers, chaotic and “pretty formidable, apparently”.
McAnulty exudes energy and laughs a lot. His voice, however, belongs to an older man, and his writing is often unexpectedly wise too. When I ask about literary inspiration, he answers immediately: Seamus Heaney. “You can reread his poems again and again”; there are “all these different compartments like bubbles. You pop them one at a time and there’s no centre to it. There’s this saying about a brain: if a brain was simple enough to understand, we’d be too stupid to understand that brain. That’s almost the same as Seamus Heaney’s poems because they have such complex connections.”
He also enjoys reading Ursula K Le Guin, is currently “neck-deep” in his umpteenth rereading of The Lord of the Rings, and is fond of Agatha Christie for her focus on people’s hidden motives. “That’s been quite important to me because I try my best to learn about humans so I can make acceptable social interactions.”
A teacher once told McAnulty he would never be able to string a paragraph together. He was miserable – “and miserable is an understatement” – at a succession of schools, including Oscar Wilde’s alma mater, Portora. The bullying (he didn’t know how to make small talk about Minecraft) intensified as he became a teenager. The noise and clutter of classrooms made them the worst environment for him.
McAnulty learned that being in nature helped. “I can’t speak for all autistic people, but I feel things more intensely. In a shopping centre there’s all of those different noises coming from different angles – my brain can’t process them quickly enough, and everything goes completely crazy. Being out in nature, the sounds are quite level and I find it easier with muted colours. Everything just works. It’s not oppressive.”
He wrote from a young age, on scraps of paper. “One of my ways of processing the world is writing things down,” he says. Then social media helped him find a path. Aged 12, he began a blog about nature and joined Twitter. “Four years ago I wouldn’t have been able to talk to you right now,” he says. “Twitter opened my world to like-minded people. You’ll always find someone who is willing to talk to you about mycelial networks. It’s given me so many opportunities to connect with people and not feel so isolated.”
As McAnulty wrote, and also took his first steps in environmental activism – campaigning to end the persecution of birds of prey – his blog gained readers and admirers. Three years ago, he appeared on Springwatch and was befriended by Packham. Adrian Cooper and Gracie Burnett, the husband-and-wife team behind tiny independent publisher Little Toller spotted his writing and began talking to his family about a book.
Diary of a Young Naturalist tells the story of McAnulty’s year from spring equinox to spring equinox, from his 14th to 15th birthday. It was a difficult time. His family moved from one side of Northern Ireland to the other and he had to cope with changing schools and losing his cherished wild heartlands, a forest called Big Dog. “When I was younger, I remember moving from a school I absolutely hated. Even though I wanted to get out of that place with every single fibre of my body, still, in the back of my mind, I was going: ‘I don’t want change.’”
The move from Big Dog precipitated a breakdown, where McAnulty ended up screaming in panic in his garden. His struggles that summer were not helped by the rise of social media trolling (the downside of forging those positive connections). “Removing” himself from Big Dog “was devastating, as if it killed a part of me. Then I went up into the Mournes” – the mountain range close to his new home – “and everything became fine again.” Was his recovery as simple as that? “No, but it definitely helped discovering a new place and building up a new connection with the land. I slowly crawled my way back into some semblance of a calm state of mind. Exploring was a really big part of that, trying to find new places to root myself.”
Writing was followed by a seven-month edit with Cooper and his parents. “All my family got together, trying to coax this book into something that was manageable,” says McAnulty. But Róisín says she wouldn’t want people to think his writing was overly shaped by others. “Although it has been edited sensitively and beautifully, the first draft was actually incredible.”
Rewriting was a mixed blessing for McAnulty, forcing him to “re-experience” memories both traumatic and joyful. “I uncovered things about myself along the way. It’s like reading a book for the second time. I had to drag myself back through that thornbush. But I understood myself all the better because of it.”
After his breakdown, he started at a new school. Despite huge anxiety, in the book he finds kindred souls and a nurturing environment. “It has been the best school I’ve had,” he says. He still has to flee lessons at times but “I have, dare I say it, friends now, for the first time ever. I’ve had the best luck in the world … I managed to land myself in a year group that was basically made up of nerds.”
McAnulty plans to take biology – his first love – alongside maths, chemistry and politics at A-level. He is currently writing a picture book for younger children and anticipates a career in conservation science. Activism takes up an increasing portion of his time. He runs a project to satellite-tag birds of prey, an eco group at school, and is prominent in his generation’s call for action over the climate and biodiversity crises. Although the British government last year became the first major economy to make a legal commitment to “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, these are still only words, he believes, and his generation is becoming impatient. “We see a problem and we need to fix it. So when [politicians] don’t fix it and seem to be making excuses we get angrier and angrier.”
In the meantime, McAnulty keeps his family, and the simple glories of the natural world, close. His favourite time is dusk, when “the night sky seems to chase the sun out of the sky and you can’t really see the sun’s light but you know it’s just underneath the horizon,” he says. “At that time, the energy in the air is so charged. That’s when the bats begin to come out, and you feel such a rush.”
• Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty is published by Little Toller (RRP £16). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Natural talent: the 16 year-old writer taking the world by storm | Science and nature books