Do cameras prevent us from seeing things properly? Yesterday, teenage sensation Dara McAnulty published his second wildlife book, encouraging people to reconnect with the world around them. As dusk falls across the rugged countryside of Northern Ireland, a family of five steps out into their garden with eager anticipation.
The teenage naturalist whose words spark joy
As dusk falls across the rugged countryside of Northern Ireland, a family of five steps out into their garden with eager anticipation.
Do cameras prevent us from seeing things properly? Yesterday, teenage sensation Dara McAnulty published his second wildlife book, encouraging people to reconnect with the world around them.
Within minutes, the skies above them are filled with dozens of silver moths, feasting on a sea of purple flowers.
"Some rest, drunk with nectar, before refilling, whirling and dancing in constant motion," recalls 17-year-old Dara McAnulty.
McAnulty and his family are not alone. According to the National Moth Recording Scheme, moth sightings in the UK rose by a third last year as people found solace in their gardens during lockdown. In Cheshire, eagle-eyed enthusiasts caught sight of seven new species, while Cornwall's moth watchers were delighted by migrant Scar Bank Gems.
"If the pandemic has taught us anything," McAnulty concludes, "it's that we all still have a real interest in the natural world."
Indeed, 2020 was a big year for Dara McAnulty. Like most teenagers, he spent hours attending school online, locked up inside and cut off from his beloved outdoors. But he also became a published author and the youngest ever winner of Britain's biggest award for nature writing, the Wainwright Prize, for his debut novel, Diary of a Young Naturalist.
McAnulty was born in 2004, the son of a music journalist and a conservationist. At the age of five, he was diagnosed with autism, like his mother and two younger siblings. He was bullied at school and found living in the city overwhelming. "Life in Belfast was a yelling cacophony of piercing noise," he remembers.
But a move to rural County Fermanagh in 2013 changed everything. For the first time, the family could hear birdsong, no longer drowned out by the hum of traffic. McAnulty decided to start a blog. "I need to write to process what's going on," he says. "Otherwise everything's just banging around in my brain causing damage in there."
The teenager's blog about Northern Irish wildlife soon caught the attention of a publisher, Little Toller. They asked him to write for their website and soon the blog posts morphed into the draft of a book.
Eyes wide open
Diary of a Young Naturalist tells the story of McAnulty's 15th year. His experience of autism is a central part. In one scene, as the family prepares to move house, he begs his parents to dig up the plants and bring them too.
But it was not just his frank account of life with autism that captivated critics. The pages are filled with countless metaphors. Caterpillars move "like slow-motion accordions". A swallow's nest is "as intricate and dense as a cathedral". Reading McAnulty's diary "really is a strange and magical experience", declares reviewer Christopher Hart.
McAnulty's focus is on the joy of nature rather than impending doom. Still, he worries that humans have lost their connection to other species.
His advice to budding naturalists is to forget the camera. "You'll never see something if you bring a camera," he warns. "You'll never see what you're intending to find."
Do cameras prevent us from seeing things properly?
Definitely, say some. The quest to capture the perfect photo stops people from fully appreciating the moment they are in. The crowd of tourists jostling to find the perfect angle of the Mona Lisa, smartphones in hand, are not truly witnessing the beauty of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece. Dara McAnulty is right - we should all put down our camera phones and start truly seeing.
Of course not, say others. People take photographs because they appreciate the amazing and wonderful things they are seeing, not instead of it. In fact, wildlife photographers insist that having a camera actually sharpens their instincts. The thrill of taking the perfect shot drives people to see the world around them and find the beauty in everyday life.