Big Issue Vendor

Dara McAnulty on lockdown: ‘These stagnant days are full of life’

Like many of us, Big Issue Changemaker Dara McAnulty relies on nature to bring stability and solace to his world. A leading light of the conservation and climate movement at 16, Dara, of County Down, writes about the wild side of lockdown

I’m not going to lie. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been awful. This pandemic, which has been sweeping across the globe, has turned all our lives upside down. Of course, some more than others. My sister contracted Covid-19 first, before lockdown happened and so we had already been isolating. Then, a couple of weeks later, my mum contracted the virus, much more severely. She is now recovering, and our house, which has been holding its breath for a few weeks now, is starting to breathe a little easier. We had done everything as directed. Staunchly rule-obeying, bleach-waving and ultra-paranoid socially distancing, with a longer incubation period for my mum, we were told. For most of the lockdown we have had to stick to our piece of Earth – our rented small house and tiny garden. So it hasn’t been easy. No school, routine, no structure to my days. No school eco group. My GCSE exams have been cancelled. As an autistic, that’s really difficult. Change is excruciating. Between my sister’s and mum’s period of sickness, we had some golden days where we could have visited the forest next to our house. A quick jump over the fence and I’m transported away from the busy road and into a spring wonderland with symphonic birdsong, towering trees and newly emerged wildflowers. So close, yet so out of reach because even though not many people go there we just didn’t want to risk it.

I find it difficult though, to not feel joy, to not focus on the positives. A sliver of light is always there among the darkness. I tend to search for it and grab it like a lifebuoy, and of course for me it’s the natural world, in whatever shape it presents itself to me. It may be accompanied by noise – lawnmowers, power hoses; all the surrounding houses now availing of the time to do ‘all those noisy outside jobs’, but it’s still there. Sky, so there’s birds in flight and clouds and weather. A tiny bucket pond, so there are tadpoles, nymphs, larvae and daphnia. Bird feeders, so there are avian visitors to meticulously record and observe with no rush. We let our little patch of grass shine with dandelions, so we have bees and butterflies. Our tiny nature reserve which invites nature in and allows it to thrive is food for the soul of this young naturalist. I can retreat and momentarily forget about everything else that is happening in the world. This period of isolation, it’s frustrating yes, but it’s necessary and so to fill my life with purpose I am recording videos for social media on what I’m seeing. Red kites over our house. Bullfinches feeding on our dandelion seeds. The metamorphosis of our tadpoles. The discovering of what we are capable of enduring. The missing of grandparents and friends. The absence of playing children in the streets. The loss of the ease in which we move through our days. Going to the shop is now a military operation. The natural world, though, is constant. It is ever present and for me, now more than ever it is keeping me going.

My family and I have always lived in the slow lane, so this speed is not new to us

Every morning, I rise with the dawn chorus, letting the sounds roll over and into me. I don’t even have to go outside. I just open my window and listen as cascading blackbird is joined by robin, chaffinch, wren. Blue, great and coal tits and finally the sparrows, the rowdy revellers at the end. It’s like liquid gold trickling into my being, warming up the good vibes needed for an OK sort of day.

I have schoolwork of course, but it is interspersed by looking through the kitchen window at the antics of our garden birds. The RSPB have a breakfast garden watch on Twitter, sometimes I get in touch to share my findings, mostly I don’t – because then I won’t get sucked into the social media black hole. I just record them in my notebook for my own benefit. The largest haul in the hour between 8am and 9am included a buzzard and a long-tailed tit. That was a great day. Wild Mornings with Chris Packham is on too, it’s a wonderful pick-me-up, full of positivity, interest and wonder. A mini-Springwatch. So many organisations and individuals are getting creative and inclusive and reaching out to people in their homes, to shine a little light, a little human interaction, which is so important to us as a species.

Dara's family have always enjoyed a slower pace of life

The mini-pond is a focus point in the orientation of my day. An ever-changing window of life to stare at and, yet again, observe. I have always appreciated what is close by as we have never travelled very much as a family, but now of course I have so much more time to immerse myself. Time inadvertently does cause worry for some, because in the modern Western world we seem to have so little time. My family and I have always lived in the slow lane, so this speed is not new to us.

I fill the rest of my day with writing (admittedly, not very much!), reading, researching, keeping in touch with my friends and family, doing jobs around the house and playing on my Xbox, because I love playing video games too. These seemingly stagnant days for me are still full of movement, of life, of little dramas playing out in my garden. Full of the unconditional love of my family, and although it is becoming increasingly difficult as the days and weeks of isolation carry on, I will continue to stick with the rules; to save lives and do the best that I can, to create meaning. It’s the best I can do.

Dara McAnulty’s debut book Diary of a Young Naturalist is out on May 25 (Little Toller, £16)