You describe yourself as having ‘the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist and the bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world.’ Where do you see yourself – and the world – in 25 years’ time? Or in 50?
If I look that far into the future, I feel incredibly anxious because the action that is so desperately needed now is ignored by leaders and the powerfully rich – the current system benefits them enormously in the short-term. I live day to day and do what I can. As I rise each morning, I ask myself in what way can I make a difference to the moments stretched ahead of me. How can I raise awareness of the beauty of the world and how can we protect it, because I come from a place of love, not fear; if I am to continue being optimistic, I respond with small acts of awareness and practical help (such as community work, advocacy and writing). I do know though, that I want to be a scientist, that I will continue to write – perhaps I will have the opportunity to write about nature without the taint of destruction attached. I’m not sure that is going to happen, unfortunately.
In your book, you talk about feeling things with painful intensity – how have you found ways to deal with this?
I am told that as a baby, when I was upset, overtired or overwhelmed, my mum would carry me outside and point at birds, the sky, touch leaves and talk to me gently. I would immediately calm down. This was perhaps the beginning of my connection to nature and knowing that these aspects of life were sacred, that they were touchstones to my inner balance. It has just continued on like this and of course my thirst for knowledge also stabilises my brain. The act of learning has also always been a way to steady the ship of autistic sensory overload.
You’ve been described as an inspiration and a fantastic role-model to young people. How does that sit with you?
At first, I found this very uncomfortable and actually painful. I felt this because I couldn’t see change in the world or even the possibility of it coming any time soon. My work was so incomplete that it honestly seemed ridiculous to be called an ‘inspiration’. I also felt anxious about this because disabled people are negatively framed in this way if they jump outside the stereotypes of what disability looks like. However, when my book was released, countless people wrote me letters and sent me messages explaining how their outlook on nature had irrevocably changed. Something shifted in me. Hope shifted a little forward. To me though, nature is the true inspiration, I just listen to the language and transcribe it onto the page. I’m not sure how the process works because it happens very naturally. I guess I still don’t accept the idea that I’m an inspiration or a role model – it’s not my idea to hold on to, so I guess in a roundabout way I’m saying that I can’t really explain, endorse or contextualise people’s description of me?
Your book is beautiful, moving, and at times incredibly raw. You seem able to find joy in the most difficult circumstances. Is that an important part of your attitude to activism? And how might others create and foster the same joy?
Yes, absolutely. As I said before – I come from a place of deep love and fascination. If I feel overwhelmed, I can connect with small miracles happening all around me. Even though right now, I live beside a road of relentless traffic noise – we still have a huge number of birds in our garden and our small garden has dandelions and so, insects. A few trees and so, new buds, constant growth. Birds’ nests. I feel that if people notice these tiny things around them, it can sustain activism. Noticing is a radical act because so many are running at top speed through life. Slowing down to look fuels joy and curiosity – I suppose it can be a passive act or one that is dynamic depending on how you respond. I like to understand ecology and science, so for me it expands far beyond the moments spent outside. Joy comes from inside; it comes from desire. If you desire simple things, I think joy may be a natural outcome. Of course, I feel intense anxiety and pain almost daily, that probably won’t change, as being autistic in the modern world is not conducive to constant joy – but I definitely feel that being finely tuned to nature creates a safety net.
Your poem ‘Anthropocene’ ends with ‘Will my generation see the rightful/Rising? How do you see the role of the writer in the Anthopocene?
Writers are storytellers. They are the narrators of culture. Interpreters of momentous change. Art is essential in creating deeper understanding, wonder, and also, facts. These threads woven by diverse voices from all backgrounds can give insight, comfort and necessary discourse. Exploration of ideas and challenges elevates them, and shape shifts the imagination. The act of writing too involves a metamorphosis of the mind, almost. I write to understand, it has always been like this for me. It is also an act of rebellion, of hope. Rachel Carson once said ‘The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities… If there is poetry in my book it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry’. I feel this is true, even for the Anthropocene. This macabre and devastating time needs beauty to sustain our drive forward to carry on with our work, whether as a writer, activist, conservationist or citizen. A pen in the right hand can ring with true clarity and vision, sensitivity, compassion – all much needed right now.
An Extract from Diary of a Young Naturalist
Wednesday, 17 November
We meet outside Dublin’s Dead Zoo. There are rows and cases of dead and extinct animals, trophies shot for game. Collected. Amassed. Hoarded. Glassy-eyed. Lifeless. Museums of natural history normally fascinate me, but here I feel sick and bitter. There are lots of people, a sea of faces with placards and banners and drums. There are cheers, chants, waves of solidarity pulsing. Many speak before me: politicians, lawyers, academics, a fellow young activist called Flossie (she’s really cool). This surge of humanity, this coming together, is an Extinction Rebellion.
I might love punk music and hate conformity and being boxed in, but I never saw myself as a rebel. But maybe I am, and as I stand on a wooden box, the organiser, called Carolyn, holds a microphone so I can read my speech. I feel emboldened, outspoken. I feel like it’s the first time I’ve actually said out loud all the many things I’m angry about. It feels energised and raw as I look above the people, raising my voice, declaring out loud, my anger rising.
These are the threats we are facing. These are the crises that the most vulnerable in the global south are already facing. Yet those in power do nothing. Those in big business just carry on making obscene amounts of money. We are governed by materialism. Flocks of curlew and lapwing were commonplace when the destroyers were children, like me. But unlike me, they do not see the world as I do now. Depleted. They couldn’t possibly know. Now, however, they are in denial. If they weren’t, how could they carry on? The fields are falling silent and empty and although I love corvids, I want to see diversity. A healthy and balanced ecosystem. Even my beloved whooper swans are not as bountiful. I try to imagine the noise, the music, the orchestrational clamour of the song. I can’t because it’s not there. I ache for it. The world is still hurtling too fast. My generation will experience the worst of it: rising sea levels, oceans with more plastic than marine life, oceans starved of oxygen because the phytoplankton cannot survive the acidity of the warming water. The loss of wildlife crashing to extinction at a rate never seen in human history. Soil, where all living land life springs from, is so toxic from pesticides that insects can’t survive.
My brain feels out of control. This anger was seething inside as I travelled down to Dublin. It is still seething now as I speak with the first Irish gathering of Extinction Rebellion, and I’m still nervous because it might get rough or the police might come, as they have done during the London protests. When I reach the end of my speech, I step away from the microphone to breathe. The heaviness of it all. It is wonderful, standing in the street, clamouring. What will it do though? My head hurts. I feel like the child I am, powerless and inept. Yet, I shouldn’t be feeling this. This weight on my chest has been unfairly dumped. Anger seethes again, which is never a good thing. Or maybe it is.
Call to Action: Wild Justice
“I have chosen Wild Justice because politics and the law do not currently act to protect nature and wildlife. Wild Justice holds the law accountable and challenges the inadequacy and lack of commitment afforded to protecting the incredible species we share our world with.”
Dara McAnulty is a 16-year-old autistic naturalist, conservationist and activist from Northern Ireland. After writing his online blog ‘Naturalist Dara’ for over three years, and articles for many UK Wildlife NGOs, Dara published his debut book, Diary of a Young Naturalist, in 2020. He won the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing in 2020, becoming the youngest ever winner of a major literary prize – alongside many other awards. Dara is a passionate and fervent campaigner for the natural world and a dedicated fundraiser, volunteer and wildlife recorder. He is the youngest ever winner of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Medal for services to conservation and nature. He is also the recipient of 10 Downing Street’s ‘Points of Light’ and the winner of The Daily Mirror Young Animal Hero award. He lives with his family and Rosie the rescue-greyhound at the foot of the Mourne Mountains in County Down.