- Dara McAnulty is the teenage author of Diary of a Young Naturalist, he has critically acclaimed the debut work of non-fiction . Written in poetic prose, his diary explores his deep relationship with nature alongside acampaigning work and the everyday challenges and happiness of being autistic. It was on a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, won the Wainwright Award for UK Nature Writing 2020 – making Dara the youngest individual winner of a major literary prize. Other awards include the An Post Irish Book Award for Newcomer of the Year 2020, Books Are My Bag Readers Award for Non-fiction 2020, and he was also nominated for Waterstones Book of the Year 2020.
Dara is a prolific environmental campaigner and has worked alongside with Chris Packham, the Royal Society Protection of Birds, National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts. He is a diplomat for the RSPCA and the Jane Goodall Institute.
In his words,he talks about how he’s childhood experience was like.
“When I was very small, I crawled to catch anything that moved. Nature was the source of all wonder and curiosity to me. Every screech, squawk, flicker of wing, wriggle, buzz and hum; filled me with a desire to learn more and now that I can understand it, feel connected to a world which was overwhelming and confusing. I was ‘diagnosed’ as autistic when I was 5. Life was isolated and difficult…but I continued to learn, write, photograph and feel joy in doing heartfelt things. People said ‘obsession’ but that is a separate thing, nature was and is as big a part of me as my own heartbeat – it governs the beat of the best part of me. Living in Belfast was a yelling cacophony of piercing noise. Everything about the constant buzzing was a struggle for me, I couldn’t fade out the noise to hear what mattered. The birdsong was sullied by airplanes, the relentless traffic; you couldn’t escape it, even when you tried. My parents did try but we were all feeling the pressing down of a busy life. My two siblings are also autistic, as is my mum. Something had to change.
In 2013 my dad, who is a conservation scientist, transferred from Belfast to County Fermanagh, we moved and life started to change for us. The volume was turned down enough to hear things and we discovered quiet places so alive with wildlife, I felt a surge growing inside me. I love this place, every place we go to, magic happens. My mind’s screaming volume turns down and thoughts and words start to spill out.
I thought people might like to hear my thoughts, but mostly I wanted to have a journal of sorts, where all my collection of days and moments could be in one place. A place where I could express myself and feel a freedom to ‘speak’, a freedom which life couldn’t quite give me, in real time.
I started my blog in June 2016 and I have been overwhelmed by the reactions to it, from the wider world! I’ve met some wonderful people and have had extraordinary opportunities. My blog won the youth category for the Wildlife Trusts 30 Days Wild 2017 campaign and I also won the yearly ‘competition’ – best blog of 2016 – organised by A Focus on Nature. It’s been a crazy year! I have pushed myself to the limits of my comfort zone, doing things I was literally scared to death of doing…palpitations, and actually feeling sick…talking to people, experiencing places, people and situations I felt overwhelmed by. I want people to know though, that those who are autistic or Asperger’s can achieve things – in a nurtured environment, in a society where acceptance and not tolerance, is the norm. To autistics – that the anxiety will get better, the more challenges you give yourself – especially if it’s related to something you love and feel passionately about. People don’t realise how hard people who are autistic try, how much we have to keep at bay, process, faze out. The excruciating pain of trying to control our out of control brains; to do ‘difficult’ things, things which will hopefully in the future, help others to follow hopes and dreams.
I volunteer with my local Red Squirrel Group, record sightings and monitor Hen Harriers with Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group and I organise wildlife awareness displays for schools and organisations (the first time I did this, I had to breathe into a paper bag!). I engage with young people all the time, nurturing their connection with nature and exposing them to ideas and ways in which they can help too!
I’m also a young bat worker and help my dad with the many rescue bats which he brings home. I’m a proud Scouter and I was awarded the Chief Scout Award in July 2017, for my service to environmental work. I couldn’t have achieved this without the help and support of my Scout Leader – people are out there, waiting to help and support us, keep looking if you haven’t found the right person or place. You will.”