Fourteen-year-old Dara McAnulty, from Northern Ireland, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was five.
To manage his anxiety, he developed a therapeutic connection with nature. He joined the #iwill campaign, which brings together hundreds of organizations from all sectors in the United Kingdom to embed meaningful social action into the lives of young people.
In his role as an iWill ambassador, McAnulty works with young people to make meaningful change in the face of threats to the environment. His wildlife blog, Naturalist Dara, documents his experience about the wildlife, biodiversity and landscape of Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.
Along his journey, McAnulty has spoken to 10,000 people in Hyde Park at a ‘Walk for Wildlife’ organised by TV naturalist Chris Packham, and this year, joins the British Ecological Society to develop a strategy on how to better support and engage youth in environmental action. We asked him about his aspirations, inspiration - and for advice on connecting better with our environment.
Q: What benefits do nature and the environment bring to your life?
McAnulty: Nature brings so much to my life. When I was a toddler, it was curiosity, wonder and excitement. My capacity to learn from nature grew exponentially. To know about our world is the basic requisite to truly care about it and protect it. As I grew older, it was apparent that I was different. I was bullied and socially isolated. Nature became my retreat and a necessity for my mental health. It became a life support system. Now, I am using my knowledge and my voice to fight for nature, to communicate the importance of our environment for our mental health.
Q: What made you start a blog to inspire other young people to better connect with nature?
McAnulty: At the beginning, my blog was a way for me to express what I was learning, the species and habitats I was interested in, and the issues I cared deeply about. It quickly became something much bigger. Young people were asking my opinion, sending me pictures of wildlife and beautiful places. I have learned that encouraging other young people plays a huge part in fixing our disconnection from nature. Kids light up when I show them birds, fungi, flowers and tell them some fun and interesting facts. I get messages from kids and parents who say that my work is helping them: information coming from peers is more meaningful and less ‘patronising’. Young people see me doing interesting things and start to believe they can do the same. They certainly can!
Q: Most of your work is related to defending your local area and its biodiversity. Do you think young people are engaged and connected to their natural surroundings?
McAnulty: Honestly? No, I don’t think so—we can certainly do more. Our environment and nature is not part of the fabric of society. It is not part of our education curriculum. But kids are interested, and although many are disconnected from nature, it isn’t their fault. Their ability to access nature, the connection to the land that rural communities once had, the stories and the language, are all disappearing in our increasingly fast-paced and competitive world. I have met with young people across Ireland and the United Kingdom who are becoming emboldened to demand that they have a meaningful connection to nature and restore what has been lost. Schools can play a huge part in this, then it can filter down into family life.
Q: What advice would you give to other young people about how to connect better with our environment?
McAnulty: Being interested in nature is not part of current youth culture. I think the main barrier is in thinking that you will be isolated and bullied. I would suggest ignoring this! Connect with your local wildlife organizations, ask them how you can help them. Bring nature to your school, plant wildflowers in pots, read about issues affecting our world and make this a part of your everyday life. Get your community involved in litter picks or beach clean-ups - this is a great way to explore crucial issues such as plastic pollution. It’s amazingly addictive, too. Once you start opening your eyes to nature, seeing what’s around you, having an open mind and a thirst for knowledge, it creates such happiness and joy that you won’t be able to stop. We will never have enough young environmentalists. Join us!
Want to make a difference in 2019? We encourage everyone who wants to make a difference for our planet to apply to be a Young Champion of the Earth in 2019. Why not apply today? The prize is powered by Covestro.