4 out of 5 stars
In the thousands of years since we stopped becoming hunter-gatherers and we have changed almost everything on the planet in one way or another. We have drained and flooded places, destroyed mountains, built brand new hills, changed the course of rivers, dug deep into the earth and obliterated whole cities. When we move on to the next places what then for the places we have trashed and ruined?
Rather than travelling to all the beauty spots in the world, In Islands of Abandonment Cal Flyn decides to head to all those places that most people wouldn’t be adding to their list of places to go after lockdown. As well as finding ruin and devastation, she also finds strange beauty, rare plants and nature starting to take back what is once owned.
Starting very close to home, she heads to a place called Five Sisters. This place in West Lothian is a series of hills that are the waste from shattering rocks to extract the shale oil from. When they were created they were a grim, dark site, but now they are now a soft green as life has found a foothold on their steep slopes. The vegetation is similar to what you would find on a tundra but after the site was surveyed in 2004 a biologist was startled to find that in amongst the willow herb there were some incredibly rare plants indeed, including the Young’s Helleborine and other orchids.
Borders that have been created following disputes in Korea and Cyprus are two places that are on her destination list. In Cyprus, she meets with a man who had to flee his home in 1974 and though that he would be back in a few days. He still hasn’t returned and he can see his former home through the fence. The DMZ between North and South Korea has almost become a wildlife sanctuary in its own right with various large mammals now being spotted.
In Spain there are now around 3000 villages that the populations have abandoned for the cities are slowly crumbling into dust and being reclaimed by nature. The same thing is happening in Detroit. They call it blight; gone are the industries of the region and the employment that it brought. Entire streets have been left as the people have moved elsewhere and Flyn has included some photo from Google Streetview as they are reclaimed by scrub and trees.
Landscapes have been irrevocably changed by disasters both natural and man-made. At the time of writing this both Mount Etna and another unpronounceable one in Iceland are very active at the moment. Being shown round the remains of a town that was covered after a volcano blew its top off is an eye-opening experience. For man-made disasters, there is little to touch Chernobyl for its impact in Ukraine and across the continent. I distinctly remember it happening way back in the 1980s and I am not sure what was the most disturbing, the disinformation and propaganda from the Soviets or the vast cloud of radiation drifting across the UK. The exclusion zone around the plant is slowly being reclaimed by nature and the scientists are still learning how the massive dose of radiation is still affecting the region.
In nearby Estonia, there are vast swathes of farmland that has been abandoned and Flyn sees how the landscapes are slowly re-foresting themselves. It is becoming a massive carbon sink and in some ways replacing the trees being lost from the Amazon. A completely different place is Slab City, this desert community is a place that those in our society who don’t really fit, or in certain cases are trying to evade the authorities end up. It is a bit of a lawless place and feels a bit, Mad Max.
Some of the places that she travels to are pretty grim, a reminder of the worst that we can do to this only planet that we have. Thankfully Flyn is a sensitive and perceptive writer, she engages with the people that she meets at the places mentioned and visited in the book and her detailed background research adds depth to the prose making this a fascinating study of the places around the planet.