In the Words of Dara
By Dara McAnulty
Writing has been my way of communicating for years. I’m autistic, and I used to get very uncomfortable speaking to people – I could go days without talking to anyone at all – so writing was my outlet, and so was nature. I’ve always loved being outdoors, in the woods, with the birds, in the fresh air.
I’ve grown up in Northern Ireland, and I used to have a hard time at school, a lot of bullying, and I really wasn’t happy, though I’m much happier now, at 17, studying for my A-levels. I found my escape, and my solace, in nature. I’d spend every available moment outside, watching the insects, the wildlife around me. Writing about it was my way to process it all.
I had no idea that my book, Diary of a Young Naturalist, would find quite such a wide audience, though. It was mind-blowing that quite so many people wanted to hear this story about a year in the life of a 14-year-old. Originally, it was only supposed to be a collection of blogs, so when it became a book, and it was published, and people bought it, and it won awards – well, I can’t tell you quite how much that shocked me.
I suppose its success has given me hope, though. It tells me that young people, autistic people, have as valid a voice as anyone else in the literary world. It has also given me this strange platform, and turned me into a spokesperson. I’m happy speaking about nature, but it’s difficult to speak for all autistic people, simply because we are all so different; I’m only one facet of a brilliant diamond.
Over the years, I’ve been distressed watching how much the world was becoming disconnected from nature. There has been so much change in our lives over the past 100 years, perhaps more than we could possibly have imagined, and that has caused us to lose sight of our roots.
We need to make changes in the education system, and put nature back at the forefront. We are born curious, and we just need to be reintroduced to it, because I don’t think we ever really lose that connection.
Look at lockdown. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we all still have a real interest in the natural world. When we face our biggest crises, we return to the places we seek solace from most; our gardens became our focus this past year.
I remember during the first lockdown people saying that the birds seemed to suddenly get louder. They didn’t get louder at all, of course; we simply started paying more attention to them. In other words, nature has been there all along. I just hope that this connection remains when everything goes back to normal.
I’ve always been an environmental activist – I’ve campaigned publicly, and have gone on marches – and it’s been wonderful to see this happening all over the world with other young people. Social media has made it much easier for activists from, say, Indonesia and Norway to connect and organise their activism together. We’re pooling our resources and information, which is great.
But I think that, personally, I’ve changed my view of what activism can be, and should be, for me at least. I now want to be an activist through words and language and art. We need many different layers of activism, after all, and for me, art – writing, poetry, painting – greatly influences how we perceive the world around us.
So the best way for me to promote the natural world, and to help protect it, is through education and culture. The prospect excites me.