Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape.

Cal Flyn

William Collins, £16.99

Review by Dani Garavelli

IT was the photograph on the front cover of Cal Flyn’s new book that first drew me in. Captioned Last House on Holland Island, it shows a mottled grey structure, its roof lined with pelicans, perched on a rocky outcrop in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. The photograph was taken in May 2010; five months later, the house surrendered to the sea.

Like many people, I find forsaken places beguiling. In 2019, I took a trip to Ulva, off the coast of Mull, to write about its future but became fixated instead on the vestiges of its past: obsolete fish farms, ruined stone crofts studding fields like rotting teeth, and the “big house”, unlived-in, but still furnished, curtains billowing round draughty windows, plants growing up through the balcony.

This is the ghostly terrain explored by Flyn’s scintillating book, Islands of Abandonment. The author, who is from the Highlands, takes the reader from the “urban prairies” of Detroit – the defunct car capital of the world – to the Stalinist-era collective farms of Estonia; from the buffer zone in Cyprus to the forbidden forest on the site of the Battle of Verdun, and looks at what happens when disasters – natural, industrial or territorial – render places uninhabitable. She writes beautifully, capturing the distinctive sights, sounds and smells of each location, but also conjuring a visceral sense of its individual haunting. At an old mill in Paterson, New Jersey, she stands inside “the immense ribcage of an animal still breathing its last breaths”. In Rose Cottage on the abandoned island of Swona off Scotland’s north coast, “the air is thick with dust, motes of which rise and fall in asynchrony through shafts of light”.

Nor, despite the title, is Flyn’s book bereft of people. Everywhere she goes, she seeks out those forced to leave, or those who have clung on against all odds; either way they are grieving. In Cyprus, Yiannakis Rousos yearns for the home he can see but has been unable to enter since Turkish troops invaded in 1974. In Detroit, Constance King refuses to move from her blighted neighbourhood. She goes on tending the empty property next door until one day, she hears a “bam, bam, bam”, and realises it is being torn down. “Murals of every colour [bloom] across the sides of empty buildings,” Flyn writes. “And in all these, the unspoken refrain: this is home; this is home; this is home.”

Islands of Abandonment examines the fate of tampered-with and toxified land within the context of climate change. It is about rewilding, refugia, and the ability of species to flourish in the most unforgiving of environments. Flyn’s research is meticulous, but what makes the book so extraordinary is the originality of her thought. In her debut, Thicker Than Water, she mulled over her own response to discovering that a distant relative, once revered as a pioneer, had been a murderer of Aborigines. In Islands of Abandonment, she scatters observations like seeds, and you find them taking root in your brain. “I think: the skin cells of previous occupants,” she writes about the dust motes in Rose Cottage. “And find I can’t unthink it.” No more can the reader.

Her subject could hardly be more timely. During the pandemic we have become accustomed to images of “nature’s return” – fish in the now-clear waters of Venice’s canals, deer strolling through shopping malls. Many people will also be familiar with what has happened at Chernobyl. Radiation in the worst-affected areas was assumed to have killed every mammal within hours. And yet, after a few seasons, animals reappeared: lynx, boar, beavers and – most famously – wolves and bears.

Flyn visits the Chernobyl exclusion zone. She speaks to some “samosely” – literally, “self-settlers” – who have chosen to make an illicit return, and holds up for examination James Lovelock’s provocation: that aversion methods – “the more frightening and insidious the better” – could be the most effective way of keeping people out of nature reserves.

The more interesting chapters, however, are those which take place in lesser-known locations. In one, she visits Arthur Kill, a strait between Staten Island and New Jersey, peppered with wrecks: “rust-red, spectral, and lit with the roseate glow of the dawn.”

The ships, gathered and then abandoned by the owner of a nearby scrapyard, are “ghosts of industry past”. So too is Shooter’s Island, a former oil refinery and shipyard which has become a bird sanctuary – a haven for ibises, herons and cormorants. Some of the factories that bled into Arthur Kill produced polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are fatal to most species, including killifish, and yet, the killifish have adapted to their environment, becoming 8,000 times more resistant to industrial pollution than killifish elsewhere. What probably happened – Flyn posits – is that some of the killifish had genetic mutations that made them less sensitive to toxicity. They survived where others didn’t and passed that genetic mutation onto their offspring. Flyn calls this “unnatural selection”; scientists call it “rapid evolution”.

Islands of Abandonment finds nature thriving in unexpected places and landscapes adapting to change. In Amani, Tanzania, colonists introduced alien species, including maesopsis eminii, which spread, threatening the existing biodiversity. But the worst didn’t happen; the native species fought back and the maesopsis carved itself a useful role, providing shade and feeding the local fauna. Such “eco-systems” are considered by some to be “novel eco-systems”, created by man, yet self-sustaining.

The book, then, is surprisingly optimistic – an antidote to climate change defeatists who believe we are on an unstoppable course. But it is not naive. Flyn doesn’t pretend these moments of redemption offer more than slivers of light. Nor does she spare the reader the more doom-laden scenarios of “the Earth’s climate spinning ever more rapidly out of control, as increasing temperatures create positive feedback loops that amplify the effects of climate change”.

One possible criticism is that she pivots too much between these two poles. In the last chapter, she quotes Julian of Norwich’s promise that “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”, but she also invokes the Book of Revelation. She cautions against overly interventionist methods of conservation, but she also urges the reader to have “faith enough to fight”. Then again, the world is messy, and this is where we are: caught between terror and hope, action and inaction, unsure what to do for the best.

Cal Flyn is at the Paisley Book Festival on February 27. The festival runs online from Feb 18-27. For programme and ticket details visit