When Dara McAnulty talks about the natural world, he comes alive. His arms fill the screen as he describes his most memorable experience of recent weeks – a chance encounter with a pair of red kites.
“We’ve got this sort of bridle path that sneaks in between these gorse bushes so the air is already heavy with the small of coconut because the gorse are in full bloom and they smell tropical,” he explains. “All of a sudden, out of absolutely nowhere, these two red kites suddenly appear and they start wheeling above us and the sun glints off them. It’s perfect.”
As he talks, his hands circle above his head, demonstrating the birds’ approach.
“The light was at a sort of slant and the red kites were coming in like this and they were just above me, and the way the light seemed to bounce off the feathers, it sort of reflected – I think the word for it is ambient occlusion, where it sort of goes through them and creates a sort of colour shadow – and the colour shadows spread across the entirety of the red kite making it almost like this ruby. It was beautiful.”
This heartfelt description could be an extract from McAnulty’s book. As we chat over Skype – dictated by coronavirus restrictions – the words spill out of him as he talks about the natural world; it is his joy, his passion and his inspiration.
“Raw experience is so important for me, and that does form the core part of the book,” he says; he wanted to give his readers “that sense of experiencing it first-hand”.
Diary of a Young Naturalist, which is published this month by Little Toller, charts a year in the seasons of the now 16-year-old’s life, from lying in bed listening to the call of the blackbird on a spring morning to marching through Belfast with Extinction Rebellion come winter.
As the seasons progress, it is not only the natural world that changes. McAnulty, who has autism, faces bullying at school and trolling on social media as well as a move across Northern Ireland from Co Fermanagh to Co Down; by the year’s end he has found friendship, acceptance, and a clearer understanding of his place in the world and how he might use his talents to save the nature he loves.
McAnulty began blogging at the age of 12 under the title of Young Fermanagh Naturalist. It won him the first of many awards and led to new opportunities, not least on BBC television and radio. In 2019 he was the youngest ever recipient of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) medal for services to conservation – an award also held by Sir David Attenborough.
Throughout, writing has been his constant, words the means by which he makes sense of the world around him. “If I don’t write things down it completely goes out of my mind,” he says; in turn, writing provides a “trigger” which allows him to unlock his memories.
Much of the book was written in real time, though as the seasons progress it becomes more retrospective. That said, McAnulty explains, “it was still written very much as I was experiencing it, because when I write about something I have to re-experience and I have to put myself back into the exact moment”.
In good times, this meant “I got to feel all the happiness all over again”; in bad times, it was “tough going”.
This is an understatement. As spring moves into summer, he writes movingly and with complete honesty about the impact that bullying had on his mental health.
“Dandelions remind me of the way I close myself off from so much of the world, either because it is too painful to see or feel, or because when I am open to people the ridicule comes. The bullying. The foul-mouthed insults directed at the intense joy I feel, directed at my excitement, at my passion.”
At the same time, the abuse he was suffering on social media – “usually from right-wing trolls” – forced him to quit Twitter for a time, and he admits he contemplated taking his own life.
“It was a diary, and so if it wasn’t honest then that would defeat the purpose,” he says. “The bullying especially, it does feed into a part of who I am, so if I wasn’t really honest about it, it wouldn’t make sense.”
He is clear – “It needed to be me” – and rejects the suggestion this was brave. “If I can’t be accepted for exactly who I am, then what’s the point? I would never want to live behind a facade. That would destroy me, so it’s almost essential for people to know exactly who I am and not hold anything back. I wouldn’t call it brave, I’d call it essential.”
An equally essential part of his identity is his autism. He describes how people come up to him and say, “You don’t look that autistic”.
One of the book’s aims was to “smash the stereotype that all autistic people are the same, and it’s really obvious to see that someone is autistic. That is not the case,” says McAnulty.
This is where writing comes into its own.
“People don’t really understand what it [autism] is like because it’s all going on in your mind. You can’t paint mental health, you can’t photograph mental health, but I think you can very much write about it, so it was really important to provide this image of what autism is like.” He pauses. “Was the picture received?” he asks.
It is not the only picture which has been received. McAnulty describes the first copies of his book arriving last month. “It was really bizarre to see this collection of me that’s different to how I am now after writing the book. Being able to go back over it and see progression is strange.”
Part of that progression has been around his role as a campaigner. Though he enjoys activism and protest, he is critical of what he describes as “hat tipping” by adults – “being told that everything is going to change and then nothing happens”.
Instead, McAnulty has come to the conclusion that “what I’m best at is writing, so that’s what I’m going to pursue”. Inspiration has come from, among others, the writer Robert MacFarlane, whose book The Lost Words sought to rehabilitate the words describing the natural world which had been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary.
“That went out into schools and it got people’s attention and it brought forward a movement, like a campaign of words, and that was really special.
“So I guess if I could do that, that would be the high point, like the golden palace, the aim. I’m way far away from that, but that would be the dream.”
In the meantime, there is much to do. He cites just some of the threats facing the natural world near to home, including barn owls – Ulster Wildlife estimates there are just 30-50 breeding pairs left in the North – and the damage caused by intensive farming and gorse fires.
If he could change one thing, it would be education. This is “at the root of all problems”, McAnulty says. “If children at a young age are made more aware of the world around them, that’s going to influence their behaviour in the longer term.”
His mission to change minds began long ago. In Diary of a Young Naturalist he describes watching a young boy pick up a conker; the child’s mother makes him throw it away. “Dirty” she says. When she returns to her mobile phone, he finds another one and tells the boy to put it in his pocket.
“I hope it gets to stay with him, if not in his pocket then in his memory,” writes McAnulty. He decides: “I don’t want praise anymore, I want action.”
That action will be to campaign his own way. “I’ve decided I want to campaign for wonder, and for the love of the natural world,” he says.
“When we have that compassion, that base foundation, we can fix all of the other problems because we really care about them and we’ll have the drive to really put our minds to it and solve them.
“We’ve just got to change minds, and if that has to be done one person at a time with a little conker, so be it.”
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty is published by Little Toller on May 25th. Freya McClements is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times