The greatest adventure story, the best thriller I have read over the last twelve months is not a work of fiction. It is this book by Cal Flyn, ‘Islands of Abandonment.’
With everyone from David Attenborough downwards warning us that the apocalypse is nigh if we human beings do not mend our polluting and over-populated ways, there is a risk that we become de-sensitised to the urgency of the message. This risk is doubled during a time of pandemic when the psychology goes ‘Look, no, sorry, can’t take any more doom! Pass me a slice of pizza and something entertaining to read, for God’s sake!’
It is essential therefore that authors like Cal Flyn come at the same subject from a fresh viewpoint and that some readers do engage with what she has to say, because it is essential reading, if frightening (her work is subtitled Life in the Post-Human Landscape).
Each chapter is an edge-of-the-seat adventure story. Alongside Cal, we crawl into dark tunnels by torchlight; we hear footsteps in the attic of the long-derelict house; we encounter a variety of ‘abandonment’ zone hosts, some more stable and trustworthy than others; we slither under the fence of a WWI woodland surrounding an area so toxic nothing has grown there since (this one had particular resonance for me, having visited the battlefields and read Lars Mytting’s ‘The Sixteen Trees of the Somme’). There as elsewhere, Flyn bends or breaks the law in pursuit of her goal – access to the unthinkable; to areas of our planet today which foretell what it may all become tomorrow.
There is a Mad Max dimension to her encounters with the often-below-the-radar human inhabitants of these strange, off-limits places. There are those who need to stay out of sight of authority for a plethora of hair-raising reasons, those who are waiting, waiting, feeding white mice for scientists who will never return; those who have become obsessed with the volcano which has robbed them of their home.
Humans are not however the main focus of ‘Islands of Abandonment’. Flyn instead shows us that our planet really does not need humanity to survive, which we may or may not find comforting (I most certainly did). She argues that sometimes even well-meant human intervention is less positive than leaving Earth alone to mend itself. Nature is reclaiming even impossibly contaminated places such as Chernobyl and somehow species which live there are adapting and surviving. This does not mean they are not sick, changed, poisoned, but they are still here. Fragile humankind is however much less resilient and able to change in these circumstances, although some are trying hard to bring about that change.
This book should be read by anyone with an interest in rewilding (it is in a way a global take on Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding’, about the Knepp Estate near London). My favourite chapter focused on the island of Swona, which you can see en route for Orkney from the mainland. Cattle were abandoned there and have defied all attempts to ‘help’ them by herding them on to boats. They are now many generations wild and have become the focus of study by scientists. Their behaviour is entirely unregulated by farming and they have become a true herd again, led by a bull who, when deposed in old age, departs to dwell in peace on an isolated area of the island, and around whom, when he sickens and dies, the whole herd gathers to pay its respects.
Enjoy your next steak…
I envy Flyn her (pre-Lockdown) travel budget if not the focus of her writing. Stand by to visit Scotland, Cyprus, Estonia, Ukraine, Detroit, New Jersey, Staten Island and California in the USA, France, Tanzania and Montserrat. Everywhere she visits has been abandoned by humanity for a variety of reasons: natural phenomena such as the eruption in Montserrat; social, military and political change; and sheer inhabitability caused by human pollution, sometimes brought about decades ago. Our human inability to think/care about beyond one’s own lifetime/benefit has already served the planet very badly.
Some scientists are already predicting the end of human society as we know it within the next decade. This is no longer the potential problem of future generations, it is our own. Flyn tells us that there is already a ‘Voluntary Extinction Movement’ – which makes more sense after reading this book than it did before. Our human future will now involve an increasing number of ‘no go’ zones due to global warming, pollution, radiation and over-population. It is a bleak prospect for us – but as Flyn shows us in this fine piece of writing, it is not so bleak for a planet which has infinite potential for reinvention.
Like Rachel Carson before her, Flyn sheds a brilliant light on the unspeakable and unthinkable future of humankind. It is a warning but not one altogether without hope. An important and beautifully written book, this is a ‘Silent Spring’ for the 21st century.
Would make an excellent book club read.