Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flynn

Review by Linda Lappin

Combining exquisite lyrical prose, a gripping travel narrative, and meticulous scientific research in the fields of botany, biology, chemistry, genetics – investigative journalist, Cal Flynn, takes her readers on a breath-taking journey to the wastelands of the planet.  From slag heaps to urban ruin, derelict collective farms and untended botanical gardens; from the arsenic- soaked battlefield of Verdun to the ragged forests of Chernobyl, the author’s project is not to document human devastation of the environment, but to report on ecosystems regenerating themselves almost miraculously through their own powers. We are living in a hopeful moment, she claims, in the midst of “a huge, self-directed experiment in rewilding” in which Nature needs no help from us.

To bring her message of scorched earth redeemed, Flynn equipped with a dosimeter and GPS, tours twelve no-man’s lands, penetrating forbidden zones, eluding danger at every turn–armed guards, feral cattle, aggressive birds, and exposing herself to toxic substances of all types.  As with a compelling adventure story, we shimmy with her under barbed wire fences, try our luck treading rotten floorboards, pluck alien seeds from our pant cuffs, camp out alone on an unpeopled island, sipping tea on the stoop of an empty house.

But her book is not just an exciting tale and a good read: she weaves her observations together with a wealth of scientific data to illustrate, again and again, through many diverse examples, a basic natural law: “the tendency of abandoned land, to turn, over time, into forest” and to ask herself the same questions in many different ways: What happens to a place when the humans move out? What does it mean to be wild?

Through this book we explore former war zones which have become oases for species endangered or even extinct elsewhere.  We encounter “de-domesticated” animals reverted almost to a wild state. We learn how some plants can suck up poison from the soil more efficiently than any human intervention. We meet small enclaves of people living in the most polluted places imaginable who don’t seem to be the worst for it.

“What we need is a new way of seeing: a new way of looking at the land,” she writes and then gives us clues as to how to achieve that. The amount of technical, scientific, and historical information packed into this book on topics we all need to know about (but probably don’t ) is extremely impressive  but never overwhelming:  carbon sequestration, ionizing radiation, the harmful effects of PCBs, the contagiousness of urban blight, rapid evolution.  The artful ease with which she explains these concepts within her breezy nature-travelogue makes this book a groundbreaker in its genre, richly deserving the praise and prizes showered upon it since its publication. It is essential reading for the decade.

Yet, one notes a curious paradox in Flynn’s style: a tendency to anthropomorphize the environment: birches have torsos, buildings have ribs, boards “drape languidly.”  A dried-up lake is a “footprint,” poison ivy “offers a treacherous hand,” tree limbs “rest shyly or prostrate themselves,” saplings mill around “waiting for something to happen” while “trees strike comic poses.” Such frequent recourse to this literary device must be the result of a conscious choice.  Perhaps Flynn wants to say we can’t stop ourselves from perceiving our environment as a projection of ourselves, as an extension of our own bodies.  And yet, as her many arguments in this book suggest – such a perception may be the very root of our troubles.

Current world circumstances–the invasion of Ukraine, cast a somber light upon some chapters if read today. German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, recently warned that Ukraine will be dealing with the environmental impact of the bombing for at least the next one hundred years.  Though Flynn takes a long view, in her description of former war zones, she reminds us of the huge loss of human life that occurred in such places and the intervals that must pass before life returns to a blighted area, exceeding a single human life span.  Her celebration of nature’s resilience subtly throws our small fragility into sharp relief.