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Good Reads  Earth System Sciences  Geosphere  Geography  Environmental Geography

Islands of Abandonment Life in the Post-Human Landscape

Nature Writing
By: Cal Flyn(Author)
392 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos
Poetic and spellbinding, Islands of Abandonment explores how nature rushes back in when humans abandon a place.
Islands of Abandonment
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  • Islands of Abandonment ISBN: 9780008329808 Paperback Dec 2021 In stock
  • Islands of Abandonment ISBN: 9780008329761 Hardback Jan 2021 Out of Print #253573
Selected version: £9.99
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About this book

This is a book about abandoned places: ghost towns and exclusion zones, no man's lands and fortress islands – and what happens when nature is allowed to reclaim its place.

In Chernobyl, following the nuclear disaster, only a handful of people returned to their dangerously irradiated homes. On an uninhabited Scottish island, feral cattle live entirely wild. In Detroit, once America's fourth-largest city, entire streets of houses are falling in on themselves, looters slipping through otherwise silent neighbourhoods.

Islands of Abandonment explores the extraordinary places where humans no longer live – or survive in tiny, precarious numbers – to give us a possible glimpse of what happens when mankind's impact on nature is forced to stop. From Tanzanian mountains to the volcanic Caribbean, the forbidden areas of France to the mining regions of Scotland, Flyn brings together some of the most desolate, eerie, ravaged and polluted areas in the world – and shows how, against all odds, they offer our best opportunities for environmental recovery.

By turns haunted and hopeful, this luminously written world study is pinned together with profound insight and new ecological discoveries that together map an answer to the big questions: what happens after we're gone, and how far can our damage to nature be undone?

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Spellbinding and haunting
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 8 Sep 2021 Written for Paperback

    When humans abandon a place, nature comes rushing back in. Dotted around our planet are numerous areas now devoid of human habitation: ghost towns, conflict zones, pollution hotspots, and areas wrecked by natural forces. Author and journalist Cal Flyn explores thirteen such locations and here reports their sights, sounds, and smells. Surprisingly rich in ecological and biological detail, Islands of Abandonment is a poetic and spellbinding travelogue. A dark howl of decay and human hubris, shot through with the inevitable rebirth of nature, this book haunted me long after I finished it.

    Alan Weisman made this question – what would happen if humans disappeared overnight? – the subject of a thought experiment in his book The World Without Us, but in many places it is only all too real and Flyn examines the return of nature here.

    Some locations Flyn visits have almost become popular attractions, such as the decaying boomtown of Detroit, but most are not places you want to be. Often, the spectre of pollution keeps people away. Humans have left a vast legacy of waste charting various stages of technological development. In West Lothian, Scotland, Flyn climbs enormous slag heaps of spent shale dating to Scotland's 1860s-1920s heydays of oil production. Abandoned ship scrapyards around New York hide a darker legacy of soil and sludge laced with lethal levels of dioxins, PCBs, and pesticides that is best left undisturbed. Now-shuttered factories once carelessly dumped their waste in the river. Wars have left a grim stain on the land, World War I being particularly vicious. Even a century later, the Place à Gaz in northern France that Flyn infiltrates remains a virtually sterile blemish on the land: an immense pile of unused chemical weapons was burned here after the war. "It appears like a tundra of melted tarmac: waste ground of the very purest kind" (p. 188). In other places, static conflict zones remain dangerous. Guarded by soldiers and littered with landmines, they have become unlikely nature reserves. Flyn tentatively probes the buffer zone that splits Cyprus in two and discusses other examples past and present, such as the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

    And yet, Flyn sees the same everywhere; humans leave* and nature comes rushing back in like an unstoppable tide. This has been particularly well-studied in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone but is in no way exclusive to it. As far as I can tell, Flyn has no background in biology, yet Islands of Abandonment is surprisingly rich in biological and ecological details that she gets right. She has studied the scientific literature (carefully referenced in endnotes) and acknowledges the input of two scientists.

    Thus, she talks of ecological succession in abandoned landscapes when plants recolonize, including both human wastelands and sites of natural disasters. On Montserrat, the village of Plymouth was buried by the eruption of a volcano that "is a known erratic, a drunken lout known to stir into destructive rage even after years of troubled sleep" (p. 282). (Remarkably, she does not mention the well-documented ecological recovery around Mount St. Helens). She discusses hyperaccumulators, plants that can thrive on heavily contaminated soils and store pollutants in their tissue, which opens up the possibility of phytoremediation: using plants to clean up our mess.

    An abandoned botanical garden in Tanzania offers the chance to talk invasive species and make several sharp observations. According to the IUCN, more than half of the worst invasive plant species are escapees from botanical gardens, though she is also balanced enough to discuss the arguments put forth in Inheritors of the Earth about invasive species not always causing disruption. Now for the bit that was new to me – in some abandoned sites invasive species initially run rampant to then fall victim to native diseases or pests years or decades later. Flyn ponders what lessons this holds for our intensive, hands-on conservation efforts that often include culling "one of the biggest ethical quandaries at the heart of comtemporary conservation" (p. 219). Should we step back more often and refrain from intervention?

    I was very pleased (though I am, of course, biased) to see her discuss evolution this much – and get it right. Is natural selection a painstakingly slow process? Maybe painstaking is the wrong word, she opines, for it "implies slow deliberate travel in a single direction. Evolution is based upon the opposite: sheer, random chance" (p. 174). These abandoned sites offer many case studies of how our actions affect evolution in animals and plants. She discusses rapid evolution, such as fish becoming insensitive to PCBs, and coevolution; and how invasive species settling in "does throw a little cold water of the idea of ecosystems as the intricately wrought, carefully balanced product of millennia of coevolution" (p. 224). After having introduced domestication, she asks whether the cattle abandoned decades ago on the Scottish island of Swona are an example of reverse evolution and de-domestication, where domestic species revert to "an ancestral form after a return to ancestral living conditions" (p. 257).

    The last part of the book takes the bull by the horns. Just because nature can return, does not offer "a free pass to companies or governments that damaged [it] in the first place" (p. 226). She asks whether these sites are portents of civilizational collapse when overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change will finally take their toll. This sees her engage with the Ehrlichs and the Scrantons of this world who believe it is already too late, that the geological forces put into motion will run their course no matter what, and that the best we can do is brace for impact. Because her forays have shown her the power of nature to rebound – albeit damaged, changed, and with great time and effort – she ultimately cannot accept their conclusions. "To do so is to abandon hope, to accept the inevitability of a fallen world, a ruinous future" (p. 323). Nevertheless, these final chapters make for a suitably somber crescendo to this book.

    The book's subtitle captures its spirit perfectly. Devoid of self-indulgence or decadent ruin porn, I instead found Islands of Abandonment a thoughtfully written and utterly spellbinding book. Flyn wields the pen of a poet but never loses sight of the importance of getting the biological details right. What a fantastically haunting book!

    *As Flyn quickly discovers, few places are truly abandoned. She talks to the people who pass through or make their home here, sometimes by choice, but more often by misfortune.
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Cal Flyn is an author and journalist from the Highlands of Scotland. Previously she has been a reporter for both The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph, and a contributing editor at The Week magazine. Cal holds a MA in Experimental Psychology from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Her first book, Thicker Than Water, was a Times book of the year and dealt with the colonisation of Australia and questions of inherited guilt.

Nature Writing
By: Cal Flyn(Author)
392 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos
Poetic and spellbinding, Islands of Abandonment explores how nature rushes back in when humans abandon a place.
Media reviews

"[...] Islands of Abandonment is thoughtfully and sensitively written, at turns haunting and hopeful, and prompts us to rethink what we mean by wild and natural. [...]"
– Peter Marren, British Wildlife 32(6), May 2021

"Extraordinary [...] Just when you thought there was nowhere left to explore, along comes an author with a new category of terrain – not scenes where man has never trod, but places where he has been and gone [...] Dazzling"

"Exhilarating [...] A story of the extraordinary resilience of life in some of the most desolate, ravaged and polluted landscapes on earth"
Daily Telegraph

"Fascinating and brain-energising. It is full of detail and colour that sends one googling, to look up pictures and find out more. It is also an optimistic book [...] I'll cling to that bit of unfashionable hope"
The Times

"Brave, thorough [...] The result is fascinating, eerie and strange [...] There is some thrilling writing here, a fine way with the telling detail, and a plea for radical revisioning of what we mean by "nature" and "wild""
– Kathleen Jamie, New Statesman

"Consistently rewarding, eloquently provocative [...] a brave book, in more ways than one"
New Humanist

"Scintillating [...] she writes beautifully [...] Flyn's research is meticulous, but what makes the book so extraordinary is the originality of her thought"
The Herald

"A thoughtful, fascinating read"

"Brilliant [...] Flyn paints vivid pictures [...] both clear and compelling"
Daily Telegraph, five stars

"Filled with understanding and adventure [...] Written with a beautiful attention to detail and a generous and imaginative frame of mind. The wonderful and surprising thing is how much reassurance and sense of possibility comes out of it at every turn"
– Adam Nicolson

"Meticulous research, lyrical writing [...] It made me think differently about nature [...] A revelation"
– Louise Gray, author of The Ethical Carnivore

"Cal Flyn takes us on a mercurial expedition into the strange lands of human surrender [...] Thoughtful, careful, fascinating, poignant, mysterious, surreal, compelling, pace pitch-perfect. I could go on [...] and on"
– Keggie Carew, author of Dadland

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