Dara McAnulty launched on to the literary scene last year in a blaze of critical acclaim with Diary of a Young Naturalist. Now 17, the natural born writer talks about how that book helped him channel his anger and apathy into action, his ‘local’ approach to tackling climate change, those inevitable comparisons to Greta Thunberg, and why writing is a form of therapy for his autism
“Sorry if I’m looking a bit flustered. I’ve just come out of an A-level politics exam.” Still in his school blazer and tie, Dara McAnulty is smiling broadly from out between lank curtains of shoulder-length hair. He might just be the only schoolboy in Ireland taking a newspaper interview after a long day of exam pressure. The apology feels unnecessary, whatever way you look at it.
“Stressful” is how the 17-year-old describes the paper, adding that his hands are a bit sore after writing seven or so pages during it. Academia, McAnulty says, comes naturally to him, all fed by a ravenous attitude to reading and discovery.
“I love learning about things, especially the sciences, biology,” he says with the first of many charming guffaws, “and so I strive always for knowledge. That’s been the driving force for me — knowledge and curiosity.”
From the outside looking in, I say, it would seem that politics is also something that McAnulty is keenly tuned into in his role as a youth ambassador for environmentalism and reconnecting with the natural world.
“Oh yeah, it’s essential,” he agrees. “Politics is how change actually occurs on a national and international level. And if you don’t engage with that system, and try to understand it, you end up having no effect on the way that we live and the way that government affects our lives. Without that understanding, we’ll end up just becoming lost, and change will really struggle to manifest itself.”
What follows is a nuanced take from McAnulty about emissions targets among the leading polluting nations, the Paris Climate Agreement, the energy industry, and the myriad complexities of the issue that you’d struggle to come across in people two or three times his age.
The publication last year of Diary of a Young Naturalist confirmed him as the youngest literary star on these islands. The nature memoir details in sparkling prose both his love of and affinity with the natural world, his experience of being autistic (his mother and two siblings are also), as well as the trials of schoolyard bullying.
The book won a raft of accolades, including an Irish Book Award for Newcomer of the Year, and that Booker of nature writing, the Wainwright Prize (whose judges appealed to have it immediately placed on the UK national curriculum).
Robert Macfarlane, a friend of McAnulty’s and something of a guru to a recent crop of “new nature writing”, hailed the debut as “brave, poetic, ethical, lyrical”. These pages, meanwhile, called Diary of a Young Naturalist “one of the finest pieces of modern nature writing produced on this island in recent years”, adding that McAnulty was one of our best young writers “in any genre”.
But before the debut, he was gaining a reputation as a vital new voice in an age where the chickens of the climate emergency and biodiversity loss were coming home to roost. His Young Fermanagh Naturalist blog was runner-up at BBC Wildlife magazine’s blogger awards (and it was this that caught the eye of publishing house Little Toller). He had also picked up Chief Scout Awards plus a Local Hero award from Birdwatch magazine. And all before he’d reached his 13th birthday.
Since changing school to Shimna Integrated College in Co Down, McAnulty is genuinely delighted to report that he hasn’t had one single encounter with the bullying that he wrote so bruisingly about in his book.
“It’s the best,” he grins. “Everybody’s a bit strange there, a bit different! It’s so inclusive and if you want to do something, they instantly provide you with the resources to actually do it.
“And I have school friends for the first time in my life, which has been life-changing for me.”
He follows up this excellent piece of news with a scandalous aside about using a loophole by way of the school’s Amnesty International group to attend a climate strike. We also happen to be speaking the day after Earth Day (April 22), which was of course rudely interrupted by that politics exam.
“There was quite a bit to study for it,” he laughs. “I was busy revising and doing chemistry homework. But usually, we don’t use electricity for Earth Day, and we try to connect with the earth a little bit. We also recently moved house. It’s literally just 10 miles down the road but, this time, we’re beside the sea. And it’s absolutely beautiful here. I went for a walk down by the beach, and I saw loads and loads of Arctic terns. Oh, they’re amazing creatures. I’ve not heard any cuckoos yet. When we used to live in Fermanagh, we’d hear them a lot. Here, a little bit less, I think, just because the agriculture is more intensive than Fermanagh. But the Mournes are still beautiful from this side now.”
Throughout our chat, the head of an electric guitar can be seen leaning against the wall in the background (McAnulty scores extra points for being a lover of classic punk rock). It reminds you that although everyone has placed these conservation and literary ideals on McAnulty’s shoulders, he is still a teenager.
Leaving aside the obvious strangeness of the past 12 months, the time since Diary of a Young Naturalist’s release, and the industry carnival that followed, must have been intense and left little time for practising Ramones riffs or reading fantasy novels.
“It does get a little bit mental sometimes,” he agrees. “It’s been pretty good recently, though, as I haven’t had that many commitments. I’ve been clearing my schedule for my exams. But yeah, sometimes it does get a bit intense and stressful. I really don’t like the limelight, and so I sort of have to almost act in my day-to-day life as though none of this has ever happened, or else I can go insane!
“But I also feel like I’ve been empowered to speak out about these things. I’m never going to turn that opportunity down, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel. Diary of a Young Naturalist was me putting myself out there, albeit in a way that I felt comfortable with, because I wanted to express what was going on inside my head, and what I wanted, and my anger, because I was quite angry during that time. I’m less angry now!
“When I was 14, I was constantly a lot more frustrated at the world, and that anger was almost a sickness to me. I’ve just realised that there’s so much hate and anger in this world that it doesn’t really need any more. And just letting go of that and trying to focus everything into action instead has greatly helped me. I definitely changed from writing the diary — I became more comfortable speaking out about the things I love.”
Work on a follow-up — Wanderings of a Young Naturalist this time (“When I get a name for something, I stick with it because I’m horrific at coming up with names!”) — has been disrupted by the pandemic, preventing him from visiting sites around the island. The book will look at the presence of ancient lore in Irish wildlife and how humans connect with the landscape through mythology and storytelling.
More immediately, he has Wild Child, a fully illustrated nature walk in book form designed for younger readers.
Beyond that and ambitions to study science at third level, writing is something he will always do, he says, even if he never publishes another book. Diary of a Young Naturalist itself grew out of a personal journal where the noise inside his mind could be externalised on a page and therefore made more sense of.
“Writing is my therapy,” he explains. “Because I’m autistic, I don’t process everything that’s going on in the world. But when I then write everything down, I can sort of experience and re-experience again all the things I missed — which is most things! And it’s essential for me to do that. Otherwise, everything would just be doing only harm, crashing about up there. On the page, it’s nice and neat and orderly.
“It’s a part of my daily routine. The diary still exists — as in, I’m still writing it. It’s not going to be published again because I don’t think my life will ever be as interesting as it was at that time. I feel really lucky that that was the most tumultuous year of my life so far, the year that I decided to write the diary. I guess that’s a silver lining! Some people go to me, ‘Are you sure you’re like that?’ And I’m like [sheepishly], ‘Yeaaaah…’”
If anything, however, McAnulty and his generation’s great environmental torchbearer, Greta Thunberg, have not only served to destigmatise autism, they have shown that it can have great value in a world of environmental inaction.
I’m curious if he sees similarities with Thunberg in his worldview, and if he subscribes to the idea that an autistic person can look at a problem and its obvious solution, and highlight the absurdity of not doing anything. Instead of tiptoeing around the elephant in the corner, these young inspirational people are actively signposting it.
“I guess I also have that,” he says. “I don’t really see the world in black and white. I tend to see the world as a rainbow because the world isn’t a simple place. But I also see that there are solutions that are not being enacted because of politics or greed or those sorts of reasons, and that fills me with anger. And also, apathy — to see the stuff you need to do in front of you, and then not doing it, because you can’t be bothered to do it.
“But the world is so beautiful because of its complexity,” he says after a pause to look out his window. “All those little details coming together to form the greater picture, and how changing one of those details affects everything. I am a strong believer that the little changes we make locally can add up to make a greater difference in the world.
“And I think this is where I differ from some of the climate activists. There’s not just a need for massive international treaties, there’s this distinct need for people to actually go out into nature, experience it, fall in love with their local places, and strive to protect them, because if we don’t build up the foundations of our love of our world, how can we expect the infrastructure of these international treaties to not collapse?
“When people say to me that they can’t make a change in the world, I say that one tiny brushstroke in a painting doesn’t feel like a lot, but together you can make a beautiful piece of art.”
For now, he is itching for restrictions to lift so he can go back out and do what he loves the most, and what has been denied to him in recent months — exploring. And who knows, there might even be time for the serious business of just being a teenager.
“You only get to live once,” he beams, “so I try to do as many different things as possible because experience is the way that you learn.
“I guess I will miss out on some things but being able to do all this makes it worth it.”
You also only get to be young once, I quip.
“Hmmm… That is also true,” McAnulty ponders. “Ah well!”
‘Diary of a Young Naturalist’ is published in paperback by Ebury Press