Activist, Naturalist, Teenager: From the Diaries of Dara McAnulty
“The feeling that I had to do something has been bottled up for years.”
Friday, February 15
I’d never stood so still in such a cold wind. Alone in my uniform, on a school day during school hours I was clutching with gloved hands two placards which read “School Strike For Nature” and “School Strike For Climate.” Not a cloud in the sky, yet the strongest of all this winter’s wind was blowing, challenging gravity. Blowing me, blowing sand over the sea defense wall on Newcastle beach. Four hours, I stood. Stood up to the avaricious world. Stood up to those that take instead of give. Those who steal my hope, and steal hope from future generations who will inherit a planet so extracted, diminished, less bountiful. People stopped to ask me why. Passers-by, teachers, parents, radio stations wanting interviews. I wasn’t expecting that. Instead of talking about the issues, they wanted to talk about “me,” how “I felt.” Not the science or the facts. Not the abomination of climate change and mass extinction, or why young people around the globe have been forced to act—young people who value education profoundly but are nevertheless compelled to act against the inaction. I’m not a doomsday prophet, though. I can’t be like that because I see so much beauty every day, and this is a huge privilege. I would never question anyone’s grief or fear, because these are real things too. Millions are already facing an ever more precarious existence in the climate catastrophe that is manifesting. Their experiences are real, their fear is real. How will those waves crashing over the sea defenses behind me be in ten years, in five years? How will everyone in this seaside place be affected?
So yes, I joined the others, like Greta Thunberg and thousands around the world. I walked out of school, with the blessing of Mum and the tight-lipped permission of my school. Although I know they are all “proud” of me, they can’t be seen to be outwardly encouraging civil disobedience. Mum stayed with me and brought a hot chocolate before I went back into school. I was frozen. Numb. But going back in with my signs was important. I needed to tell the other students why. Turning it over in my mind now, I wonder how effective it was. Was it just camaraderie? Were they only interested because I had rebelled? The feeling that I had to do something has been bottled up for years. And this single act has attracted more attention than all the other things I’ve done, all the work with raptors, the talks and awards for the things I’ve written. Is this more powerful? All the grown-ups are telling us how amazing this generation of activists is, commending our actions on social media or in the press, while doing what themselves? My generation has pulsed, and that is exciting. What doesn’t sit well, though, is the search for “leaders.” Climate leaders. Young leaders. The expectation seems preposterous. It appears that I’m now one of them. Just one single act of walking out and I’ve been crowned. It doesn’t sit easy. It’s not me, not me at all.
Sunday, February 17
Last year, I saw my first frog towards the end of January. Not yet five degrees but there it was hopping across our path while we were hiking in Cuilcagh Mountain, perfectly content on the icy ground as it disappeared into the heather.
This morning, almost a month later than last year, I find one sheltering in bramble shadows, slinky skin and limbs tucked tightly, resting on mud and decaying oak leaves. I wait and wait for it to move, but the frog outdoes my patience and determination to stay motionless, because we’re in a rush.
We’ve only stopped briefly at Peatlands Park, a nature reserve just off the M1, to break the journey back to Fermanagh, where we’re heading for Granda Jim’s birthday. He’s seventy this year. It’ll be so good to be with him and Nanny Pamela again—we haven’t seen much of them since we moved east to County Down, and they’re always so enthusiastic to spend time with us. Nanny is a couple of years older than Granda Jim, and has the energy of someone half her age. Granda has such sparkling eyes, and the kindest soul. Going west again feels halfway home and halfway to heartbreak.
The interlude at Peatlands Park is welcome, a stretching of our legs (with frog) before we travel the rest of the way. While we drive on, my thoughts wander to one of my first proper memories of being with Granda. It was when we were visiting the Crom Estate in Fermanagh. Lorcan wasn’t born, yet the image is completely lucid: we’re walking on a path adjacent to the ruined castle, which stands on the edge of a high bank overlooking Lough Erne. I drop down to listen for grasshoppers, but don’t realize it’s too cold to crouch down in the grass. I remember Granda’s hand in mine as he told me about where he was born and how he walked miles to school every day. He told me how his father made saddles and school bags and delivered the post. I was mesmerized by his lilting voice, his gentle nature.
Mum thinks I invented this memory from a photograph, because I wasn’t even two years old. But I’m convinced it’s real. Maybe I processed more of it when I was older, attached new memories, but that moment left such a deep, warm feeling. I’m sure I was babbling on about something, probably starting with a “Did you know.” I talked early, which was tough for everyone because I never ever stopped talking. Asking questions. Retelling facts about space or a woodlouse. Granda was so patient. He listened. And as we walked, the long grass tickled my legs. Usually, when I was out in local parks or playgrounds, I was taunted and mocked because of my longing to pass on information, to talk. It wasn’t welcome. And it made me a target for bullying. There was none of this with Granda Jim. He listened, talked, and lifted me up in his arms to look at the castle. We felt the stone walls together, I kissed his head.
That day was one of my first memories and I hold it tenderly close. I saw the sadness in Granda’s eyes, the way that Mum hugged him, her Daddy. Always Daddy. I can’t remember stopping off to see his old cottage after the castle. But Mum has told me about the twisting and turning roads to Crieve Cross, and driving further on into the countryside until there it was, whitewashed, not much bigger than a tool shed; apparently I couldn’t believe that so many people could fit inside. I still imagine the countryside around that cottage is perfect, with open skies and hawthorn everywhere.
I’m taller than Granda now, and when we arrive at the pub it’s all hugs and hellos. I embrace him and Nanny extra tightly because life is fragile and achingly beautiful.
Sunday, March 3
We live really close to the mountains: Commedagh, Donard and Bernagh dominate my everyday at school. It feels wonderful to be surrounded by them, and even better being able to whizz off on a whim towards them, like we’re doing this morning because the persistent rain has subsided.
We’re heading towards a car park on Slievenaman Road, so we can go for a quick traipse into Ott, just to shake off the lethargy left in our bones by the constant wet. As we climb, the air changes suddenly, and coming over the brow of a hill, we drive into a blizzard. We can’t see two feet in front of the windscreen. It’s unexpected and terrifying; we’re lucky though because we can just about see the entrance to the car park.
This is the only snow I’ve experienced all winter, so we bale out of the car, not for a walk, but just to feel it. On our tongues and cheeks. Dimming all sound, snow creates so much space in the mind. Only in this weather can I process experience in real time with such clarity. Usually, it can be frightening because sights, sounds, feelings rush over me all at once. Sensory overloads that mean I can’t properly process most of my experience until later in the day, in a dark room, when I relive the moment from scratch, spilling it all onto the page. In snow, things are different. Expansive thoughts unravel in the moment. There are fewer colors, less depth, less of everything. It really is quite a magical experience, secluded but with so much intense feeling, and even now in the howling wind and with cascading, blizzarding flakes of snow, my mind thrums differently. I can feel synapses sending signals. I can listen, I can hear. I can think and speak and feel and move all at once, instead of one process knocking clunkily into another. I never know if it makes sense to anyone else when I explain this feeling. I guess you would have to be me to really know. But I think we all have this sort of reaction to snow, just with different intensities.
The new palette of the land reveals bird tracks, and I suddenly remember being much smaller and close to the ground, following a fox track in the snow from our house across the road to Ormeau Park in Belfast. It was early on another Sunday, there was no traffic on the roads, no people, no sounds. Just fox tracks. Lorcan was in the sling because he was tired from not sleeping the night before and hadn’t been walking long. We never found the fox itself, but it was following that mattered, a journey in the silence of the city, through one of the most peaceful days of my eight years living there. I’ll never forget. I remember plunging my hand into the snow, to see what it would feel like, and then rolling over in it like a puppy wearing snow trousers. Laughing. Laughing with such relief.
From the car park on Slievenaman Road, I climb up some stone steps to a better viewpoint, the flakes dazzling, swirling, as my feet sink into the new depths. Everything is white except the stark outline of trees. I hold my face up to it, welcoming the tingle and taste. I want to stay for longer but Dad is anxious about our journey back. We have to go, just like that, and as we descend the hill, get into the car and drive away, the blizzard and the whiteness vanishes. All is as it was. A wet residue glistens on the land. There is no sign of snow. Did it actually happen? Did we all dream it? There’s still snow on my boots and my hands are red raw, proof of Narnia. In and out of one beautiful, strange yet familiar world. Probably the last kiss of winter. I’m glad to have raised my head up to feel it.
From Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2021). Copyright © 2021 by Dara McAnulty. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.