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Dara McAnulty on the Joy of Being a Wild Child

Posted on 11th July 2021 by Mark Skinner

Last year Dara McAnulty's Diary of a Young Naturalist became both a critical sensation, scooping the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing, and a popular bestseller. Now Dara returns with Wild Child, a clarion call for all children to embrace the wonders of the wild and reconnect with nature. In this exclusive piece, Dara explains why we are all wild children at heart.  

Why, Wild Child?

When I was very small, we had the tiniest front garden and a small yard out back. The main noise was the constant overhead drone from planes coming into Belfast airports, but you know what? It was full of wildlife. It was full of . . . life. Blackbird song pierced through the rumble of cars; a bumbling hedgehog slept in the corner of our two-metre squared front garden. A high hedge separated us from the street, and we collected leaves each autumn, a small accepted invitation to a wild being. We had one bird-food table that my late grandad made for us and so we had robins, sparrows and chaffinches. We had some pots where we grew our own vegetables. A window box full of wildflowers and so, bees and butterflies. That first teeny garden of my childhood cultivated a love of the living world that has exponentially grown as I have. As a family, we endured tough times, but our little garden was our refuge. It appeared ordinary, to us it was extraordinary.

Many people feel that they need Instagram perfect wildlife gardens, that they need ‘stuff’ to get started, but nature can take care of itself and one of the top things I tell people? If you have grass, keep a wild corner unmown: to see what will appear. When we experimented with this in another garden (we’ve moved around quite a bit!) we were astounded to find rare wild orchids growing! Amazing! Now this wasn’t some rural retreat, it was an ordinary small suburban garden. Nothing special, until we let nature in, and she blossomed. Over thirty different species of wildflowers appeared during that summer of mowing abandon. In that first little garden, we had a single window box filled with wildflower seeds we were given at a summer fayre. Sown in the Autumn, by Spring and Summer I was ticking off lists of butterflies, hoverflies and bee species. One window box was all we needed. We live in a modern world where parking spaces, fake grass and plants have snaked into the wish list of things to eliminate a garden where living things can thrive, it has become an ‘extra living space’ for family life. To me though, family life without bird song and insects . . . it is unimaginable.

I’m just 17 years old. I’m not here to preach. To tell you how to live your life. I can say this though. Every child is born a ‘Wild Child’. We enter this world as innate naturalists because understanding the natural world: it helps us to piece everything else together. How we exist as a species within the wider living world of billions of other species. How every part of the living world is connected, like an intricate domino display, one piece affects the next, and the next. 

My books feel like a tiny drop in the ocean when I think about the global acts of bravery we need to tackle the many challenges we are facing right now. I think though, that doing nothing is not something I’m comfortable with and maybe, reading a book by a young person is what our next generation of naturalists need? I want to instil a kind of magical rebellion. I want kids, parents and families to know that every little revolutionary act of wildness, makes your corner of the world special. That giving children space and time to explore and feel the world through all their senses, it is the greatest gift . . . and it’s free. When people ask what my greatest influence was, I can with steady assurance answer, that I was given the gift of curiosity from my parents. This curiosity, which is central to Wild Child allowed me to express an ancient human need, to make sense of the world. To connect with each majestic part of what is beautiful and so important to our existence. To learn and to grow into who I am today. I’m just an ordinary boy from a working-class family. I’m not special, but the connection I have to nature is. It has allowed me to experience true joy and excitement. Just watching the world and learning from it, paying homage to the existence of its complexity, whilst not knowing or understanding it all, has lit in me the fire of hope. I hope that reading Wild Child and experiencing the world through new eyes, through a child’s eyes, will bring hope to you, too. 

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