This Cambridge Life

The naturalist with autism named on the 2023 New Year Honours

Dara McAnulty

Dara McAnulty is an award-winning author and environmental campaigner. In December 2022 he was awarded a BEM for services to nature and the autistic community.

I’ve always loved the natural world and wanted to understand how it works. This is intertwined with my love of science, which I’ve based a lot of my writing on, and is the main driver for everything I do in life.

I study Natural Sciences. The course allows students to pick a mixture of modules from physics, chemistry or biology. The flexibility is good for me because I’ve always struggled to choose exactly what I want to do.

The workload is intense – there’s a lot of time when you’re in lectures, supervisions or the lab – but I like that because I enjoy doing lots of work. It’s a massive jump up from school where I barely needed to study to understand anything. Here you have to put in the effort.

I didn’t expect to get into Cambridge. But I was getting decent grades, so I picked it as the top option. I also thought I’d be bored at other universities if I wasn’t needing to work as hard as I do here – I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I had a lot of free time.

Dara in egg-chair

There’s something in the air at Cambridge. There’s this massive number of smart people who are making a huge difference in the world. They are using what they’re learning to do so much cool stuff. It’s inspiring.

You fall into these strange and wonderful conversations that you just wouldn’t have anywhere else. You realise that although we’re all studying different courses they interlink in unexpected ways. You find that your expertise can help another person in a completely different field.

I’m only just starting my second term but there’s been so many highlights so far. One of my favourite moments was rowing in the Fairbairn Cup, a boat race on the Cam organised by Jesus College. Another was meeting up with Robert Macfarlane (a massively respected nature writer and a member of the English Faculty here) and finding a jay feather together. And then just being taught by incredible people who are so knowledgeable about their subject areas and not afraid to go into unusual concepts and ideas that I’ve never been exposed to before.

I grew up at the foot of the Mourne Mountains in County Down, Northern Ireland, and I feel as close to nature as I do to my heartbeat. I was diagnosed with autism when I was five and I started writing the Diary of a Young Naturalist when I was 14. It expresses how I feel about the quiet places of the countryside, my days and moments with wildlife.

I’ve had a wee bit of a chance to explore the countryside around Cambridge. I’ve been to the Grantchester Fens and Paradise Nature Reserve which are both lovely. On the way to the Botanic Gardens – where there’s an almost-sad-looking-stream – I saw a beautiful kingfisher which made my week.

My favourite spot in Cambridge is the Reaches. As you’re coming up the river the boathouses disappear, then the buildings and suddenly you’re out in the Fens and can see for ages and ages. Because we get up ridiculously early to row, the sun is rising and it’s so beautiful.

I find the lack of hills disturbing – I think Robert Macfarlane put it quite well when he referred to ‘horizontigo’. We both love mountains. I’ve grown up by them the whole of my life so it’s very strange to go out in the countryside and see nothing for tens of miles until the horizon.

Dara with dog

I think I’d probably go insane if I lived right in the centre of Cambridge but at Queens’ I can be out in the Fens or parkland in five minutes. Its location is partly why I choose it. I also like that it’s a medium sized College.

Settling in went smoothly. Queens’ makes sure that everyone is feeling welcome and is really good when it comes to mental health. It also helps that Queens’ is just a five-minute walk away from everything.

I do miss my family a lot when I’m away. But the good thing about Cambridge is that I don’t have enough time to feel homesick because it keeps you rushing about. It’s important to get that bit of independence and learn how to function properly as a human in the world. I’ll just take every day as it comes and keep going one step at a time.

I’ve learnt that if you’re feeling a little bit down, sometimes getting outside can really help. Trying to make a bit of time to have those quiet moments when you can piece together all the things that are going on helps to settle the mind. It’s easy to get into the mindset of: “I’m alone; I have to get through this by myself” but no, you don’t need to do that, instead go and talk to someone because in fact people genuinely do care.

From my personal experience I’d also say – and this is going to sound so clichéd – when people tell you that you can’t do something – have a go anyway. Even if it doesn’t work out at least you gave it a try. We only get a certain amount of time in our lives, and we’ve got to try to make every little thing count.

Being named on the New Year Honours list felt bizarre. When I first saw the email I thought it was a scam. But no, it was in fact real. I’ve not entirely processed it yet, but it was incredible.

Published 30 January 2023
With thanks to:

Dara McAnulty

Charis Goodyear

Lloyd Mann

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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