Dara McAnulty on Discovering the Natural World
At just 16 years of age, Dara McAnulty is the youngest ever winner of the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing for his stunningly accomplished book Diary of a Naturalist; an inspirational, passionately argued guide to connecting with the natural world. In this exclusive essay, Dara outlines what nature means to him and how we can all make the most of its benefits during these changed times.
When a child is born into the world, they become part of the fabric of nature. An integral part of a family, but also, a whole biosphere. The air must be healthy and clean, the water safe, the sun must shine enough, for this wonderful bundle of joy to survive and thrive – just like almost every other mammal on earth. The moment a child is born, they are innately curious about the world, an evolutionary knowing that in order to learn and discover, they must first, explore. They are innate naturalists. The desire and drive to engage with light, sky, trees, grass, birds, flowers, insects is the greatest discovery of their little lives. To know about these things, is the foundation of everything else. Love, respect, care, compassion and knowledge. A child naturally knows this. As they are confined, unable to walk, they point at everything that catches their eye. When they crawl, they pull at grass, feeling its texture, they may want to put in their mouths…then STOP! They walk, and the desire to pick up sticks, stones, feathers, pinecones, conkers, worms, is undeniably strong…then STOP! I have witnessed so much in my (admittedly short, so far) life, the very large amounts of STOP! Don’t touch. It’s dirty! With no reason or explanation. Once the natural cycle of discovery is interrupted in the child, something happens, I believe. Fear. Fear happens. The natural world becomes something ‘other’, something ‘separate’. In some cases, something disgusting that needs to be controlled.
I firmly believe though that a meaningful and fascinating experience with nature is accessible for everyone. My dad is a conservation scientist. He was born and spent his first few years in a high-rise flat in London. His mum, my granny, took a jar to their local pond and collected some frogspawn. She took them home, popped them into a bigger jar and sat them on the windowsill for my dad to observe. Amidst the concrete, there was not only life, there was science, discovery and a gaining of knowledge; because we all know what happens to tadpoles in jars! The learning-experience coupled with dialogue and compassion was invaluable. I spent my early childhood in inner-city Belfast. Our garden was tinier than your average small trampoline, and yet, we had a hedge and so a bird’s nest, an overgrown patch of grass and so there were daisies, dandelions, buttercups, insects. We had a bird feeder and so, birds. A windowsill and so, a pot of wildflowers grown from seeds that we received free of charge at an event, which was also free, in our local park. Every time I gazed upwards there was sky, clouds, weather and motion, movement of wings and song of birds. In late Autumn, we knew winter was coming because we heard migratory geese flying and honking overhead. Nature was everywhere and we knew it. There were micro wildlife reserves everywhere. In everything I noticed, I saw beauty. Even when it was coupled with destruction. I chose to seek the living thing. Out of the blue we even had a hedgehog in our garden! Tight terraced houses, narrow streets, intense traffic noise; in all of that, we had a hedgehog - which of course we adopted. Buying a few tins of cat food to keep it ours and gaze at its perfect, spindly beauty. We fattened it up for winter.
Now, a good few years and two house and county moves later, during the lockdown of our normal everyday lives, I’m finding beauty and wonder everywhere. The necessity of nature to my mental well-being, as an autistic teenager, I think, has given me a life-long window, that many others are now looking through during this period of isolation. In the quiet, everything is being heard, nature is becoming the soundtrack to people’s days in a way that it has always been, for mine. Many more people are now noticing our most precious work of art – the natural world. It is filling me with such joy and squiggly delight to show people on social media the wind in the trees, birdsong, the tadpoles in our garden bucket pond and then read how such little acts of wildness are providing comfort and solace. It seems that our ancient instinct of connecting to the natural world is resurfacing, when all is in chaos, when darkness floods our airwaves and there are windows with rainbows, nature’s tendrils are winding into our consciousness and reminding us of our place in the world. We are nature, nature is us, and everything.
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