Somewhere in Northern Ireland is a primary school teacher who told Dara McAnulty’s parents that their son would “never be able to string a sentence together”. If it was you, you can be forgiven for blushing because evening, Dara, aged 16, has become the UK’s youngest-ever winner of a major literature prize.
Diary of a Young Naturalist, his coming-of age memoir about how his intense, passionate connection with nature helped him escape from the bullies at school who targeted him because of his autism, was awarded the annual Wainwright Prize, named after the much-loved Lakeland fell walker, Alfred Wainwright. Previous winners have included Robert Macfarlane, Adam Nicholson and John Lewis-Stempel.
“School has not been a good experience,” Dara reflects from the sofa of the family home in Castlewellan in County Down with Rosie, his rescue greyhound in a basket at his feet. “There have been the bullies who have been rather incessant.”
Nature, he says plainly, “saved” him. “It gave me a place where I could go that wasn’t judgmental. A squirrel or a robin isn’t going to turn round and say what you are doing is stupid.”
“And that way, I could relax in nature without the burdens and pressure of the real world as it is, [because of] that ability that nature seems to provide that, when you walk among trees, you can walk among your own thoughts.”
On account of Covid, the award ceremony was held online, which Dara confesses came as something of a relief. At the best of times, he finds travel “can be incredibly stressful”, while until recently even sitting down in front of a computer screen and talking to me would have been beyond him. “I would never in a million years have dreamt that I could do this. I struggled talking to my parents at times.”
When he started, aged 12, posting a nature blog about what he saw and experienced in Big Dog Forest, near the then family home in County Fermanagh, he had imagined that it might at best be read by a few of his mum’s friends. “At that time, I was socially isolating myself from everybody. I didn’t want to interact with people because people are unpredictable. And that scares me.”
Writing was, he describes, “a way to put what’s going on in my mind out into the world in a way that other people don’t have to listen to. It gave me an outlet. It allowed me to understand what was inside my head, and to get it outside my head.”
Yet responses to his poetic, unflinchingly honest posts about what he saw around him, and how it made him feel, quickly started flooding in, one from as far afield as Azerbaijan. “It gave me some self confidence in my ability,” he reflects, “because I had basically none at that point. The blog gave me a rooting in this world. I had been basically crumbing before that.”
Dara speaks slowly, taking his time to pick exactly the right word. With his leather string choker round his neck and punk rock T-shirts, he is every inch the teenager, down to forever fiddling with his unkempt long hair, but the ways in which he expresses himself – in person and especially on paper – is way beyond his years.
“I am Dara, a boy, an acorn,” begins his best-selling book, picked up and developed from his blog by the small west Dorset independent, Little Toller. “Mum used to call me ion dubh (which is Irish for blackbird) when I was a baby, and sometimes she still does.”
Four of his family of five – himself, his mum, Roisin, brothers Lorcan, 13, and nine-year-old Blathnaid – are autistic. They rely, he writes, on his dad, Paul, a conservation scientist, to “deconstruct” for them the mysteries of the human world, and are, “as close as otters, and huddled together we make our way in the world”.
His instinctive connection with nature has been there for as long as he can remember, he tells me. “I was first aware of it very, very young, when I was picking up random conkers and acorns and feathers in Belfast in a park. I spent all my time there. It was hard pressed for my parents to get me out of it, kicking and screaming.”
At the time, it felt to him like a wilderness, he explains. “To leave it and to come back into this polluted, life-sucking environment was really painful.” Being taken out of the park was the first real test of that connection inside him. “If you have a slack string between two objects, and it is an invisible string, no one knows it is there until you stretch those two objects apart and the string gets taut.”
And that can be traumatic. In his early teens, when the family had to relocate to the other side of Northern Ireland, being exiled from Big Dog tipped him into a breakdown, but the presence on their new doorstep in Castlewellan of a forest park and the Mourne Mountains rescued him.
To lose himself in them is, he says, an experience the Japanese call tree-bathing. “It is where you can feel all of your muscles and your mind just relax in a way that you can’t really do anywhere else, because everywhere else you have constant reminders of the human world.”
Congratulations to @naturalistdara who enthralled our judges with a breathtaking account of his explorations into the natural world.— Wainwright Prize (@wainwrightprize) September 8, 2020
Let’s hear from our winner, who reflects on what it means to win the #WainwrightPrize20 with #DiaryofaYoungNaturalist published by @LittleToller pic.twitter.com/fR8V3laZvc
Love of nature has made Dara fierce about anything that threatens it. His first public campaign – undertaken when he was 13 – was to undertake a 35-mile sponsored walk accompanied by his mum which raised £6,000 to fund satellite tags to protect birds of prey locally. “We walk though a bog in January in a storm surrounded by fog,” he recalls, raising his eyebrows. “Our feet took half a year to recover.”
His book, which covers the four seasons in the year he turns 15, ends with him going to Belfast to take part in a ‘Fridays for Future’ climate change demonstration. Dara describes himself unambiguously as having “the bones of someone who is already worried by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world”, but – if he is to be become one of the voices of his generation – the path his near-contemporary Greta Thunberg has taken is not for him.
“We all have different ways of expressing our frustration at the system. We need everyone to come together in order to solve the problems. I want to share my point of view as a young person in this frightening world. My activism is writing because writing is really, really powerful.”
That is particularly true of his, so much so that former Wainwright Prize winner, Robert Macfarlane has hailed his “extraordinary voice and vision”, while the TV naturalist Chris Packham says of Dara: “We share a mind, a fascination with nature and a forthright desire to make the world a better place for it.”
“I don’t usually read that much nature writing,” he confesses with a nervous laugh when I quoted the words to him, “but I do read so much nature poetry. I have stacks upon stacks of nature poetry. That is where most of my knowledge comes from.” The greatest influence on his writing is Seamus Heaney, and an echo of him is constantly there in the text where you read sentences like, “Skylarks are our Sunday choir as we walk out west, the landscape our place of worship”.
But all the acclaim, it is clear, won’t be going to Dara’s head. Of more immediate impact in his young life is the fact that his latest school – “I’ve been to a few schools” – where he starts A-levels in this week in politics, biology, chemistry and maths has supported him in establishing a vibrant eco-group (previous ones refused or closed them down).
And how does he see his future, besides nature and writing? “I’ll make an attempt at Oxbridge,” he says. Lets hope that, unlike his primary school teacher, they appreciate quite how exceptional Dara McAnulty is. They’ll be lucky to have him.