Dara McAnulty: A day in the life of a naturalist in lockdown

Tuesday, April 21, 2020 - 07:02

Naturalist, activist and writer Dara McAnulty has won several awards, including the BBC Springwatch Unsprung Hero Award, whilst his debut book Diary of a Young Naturalist is due for publication in late May 2020. Not bad going for someone yet to turn 16.

McAnulty had been scheduled to join at Southbank Centre this month for a special discussion on Climate Change featuring leading young voices. Unfortunately our current closure put paid to that. But whilst we work from kitchens and back bedrooms on laptops and makeshift desks, how does a naturalist adapt to lockdown? We asked McAnulty, and he kindly shared with us this day in his lockdown life.

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‘Everything has changed, routine evaporated with school closures, all events and trips I had planned have been cancelled. The days roll one after the other, I mean, what day is it? There is one thing that is constant though and I’m hanging on to it for dear life. It’s what is giving my life shape and meaning. Purpose and motivation. It is giving me comfort and it is giving me hope, and distraction. The natural world still turns, even when the human one is in chaos. 

‘Even though I’m intensely sad about the global pandemic I can at least fill my days with noticing the gentle happenings of spring; with every passing day, confined to my garden and one short walk a day for ‘exercise’, I can fit in hundreds of flashes of new life. In a time of much needed stagnancy and distance, I can also share them with those I’m connected with.

‘As an autistic teen naturalist, my intense focus on nature has always been with me but with everything moving in seemingly slow motion, days are spread out like blank canvases to fill. And they grow larger every day as new life appears and each new spring skip gives a new beat.

 

There is one thing that is constant though and I’m hanging on to it for dear life... It is giving me comfort and it is giving me hope, and distraction. The natural world still turns, even when the human one is in chaos.

‘As soon as the sun rises which is getting earlier and earlier, I wander in half sleep to the garden lying down on the still damp grass as the birds begin their dawn song. The blackbird always starts first, slow at first then bursting with urgency. I’m not rushing to get ready, so I can linger, nowhere to be. No bus to catch. The chorus fills up around me and as the sun beams light into the garden the daisies and dandelions very slowly open up to the warmth, the sleepy state falls away from me, too.

‘I don’t know how much time has passed but it doesn’t matter.  Sparrows begin chittering slightly later, a raucous storm of feathers around the feeder. They don’t hold back on ceremony or order. Still, the gregariousness brings energy and humour and action.

‘After breakfast and all of my schoolwork is finished (yes, still a little bit of contained structure) and the morning has lost its coolness, I make my way to our bucket pond. It’s a very focal point in the orientation of my day. Such a small thing, but it contains so much life! There are tadpoles of course, the holy grail of every pond. Glittering squigglers, munching algae off the sides of the plastic tub. A predator has entered the mix too, I see! A diving beetle larva, with voracious mandibles. It just seems to be squirming around on top of one of the sticks, but victims are inevitable. Bittersweet. I have a large cushion beside the bucket pond, so I can stare in comfort, read my book and keep watch for an army of ants. I have my phone and camera at the ready if anything appears.

 

Dara McAnulty: Diary of a Young Naturalist
Dara McAnulty, photographed by Elaine Hill

‘I hope people realise that kids are three dimensional, that just because I love nature, I can’t play…video games. So, I do, for a while, because it’s this layering of life that is so important to us. I also set aside time to talk with my friends, my grandparents; do jobs around the house. 

‘The highlight of my day is of course when we break free, cross the road and go for our walk. I count my blessings every day, because we live right next to a forest. I know not everyone has this luxury and so I feel guilty about it sometimes. Very few people journey deep into the wood anymore and the place is all the louder because of it. No human distraction as the chaotic symphony spills from the treetops. 

‘I take the same walk every day and the midway point is an open field where oaks are beginning the 300-year cycle of growth, shielded from the world in their plastic coverings. The ground seems to sing and dance with the flight of the butterflies. Spinning and floating in a dizzying contortion of wings. Soon it will vibrate with grasshoppers. Then, a shrill piping pierces the airspace, a Red Kite. Crimson feathers, fire given chance to fly. A head of ash. Sky dancing concentric circles overhead. The swallow tail catches the light as it lazily wheels out of sight over the trees.

 

Very few people journey deep into the wood anymore, and the place is all the louder because of it. No human distraction as the chaotic symphony spills from the treetops.

‘I always write about my walk, later, note down all the species, how I felt. It gives my experiences life. I spend hours in the garden every day, just in case a new species visits and I miss it. I missed a sparrowhawk once; that hurt, a lot. It’s a new kind of life and I try to fill it with meaning. In the dark, oscillating plips burst through the bat detector, ecstatic but unseen. We watch a movie and play board games. Nothing special. Nothing ordinary either. Tomorrow, something will have changed, a small detail, new leaves on our rowan trees. Shieldbugs will arrive on the shrubs. Further down the line, new chicks. New life.

 


 

Diary of a Young Naturalist, the debut book by Dara McAnulty is published by Little Toller Books.

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