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20 January 2021

How nature reclaims the places humans have abandoned

What might happen to the entire planet, when humanity shrinks away?

By Kathleen Jamie

What happens when humanity retreats? Or is forced to abandon? What happens to those areas of desolation? Is “desolation” just another of our human-centric terms? Do we mean: desolate of us, abandoned by us? We talk of post-industrial wastes, of contaminated land. But given time, what happens? What might happen to the entire planet, when humanity shrinks away? Cal Flyn’s brave, thorough book sets out to explore places where angels fear to tread – if angels are traditional “nature writers” or “rewilders”. The result is fascinating, eerie and strange. And because the author has chosen to, it eventually nudges towards the optimistic.

The islands of Flyn’s title are not those of romantic escape, not the St Kilda of the mind, where people have elected to leave. Though there is one such island, Swona in the Pentland Firth. The last inhabitants left more than 40 years ago but their cattle remained and now form an object study in the return to nature of a domesticated animal. Flyn’s “islands of abandonment” might well be landlocked, like Chernobyl. What these dozen case studies have in common is that humans have left, or been forced to flee, or made the place uninhabitable for themselves.

Take the near at hand. The “Broxburn Bings” are a range of pinkish man-made hills that rise sharply from the flatlands of West Lothian. “Bing” is the Scots word for a mine tip; it’s from the same Gaelic root as Beinn, or Ben, as in Ben Nevis. This range of bings is the remains of a now-exhausted shale oil extraction industry that generated 100 million tons of waste, hot enough to be sterile at first. The last shale mine in Scotland closed in the 1960s, but the bings remained, to be taken up by trail-bikers, animals and – chiefly – plants. In 2004 an ecologist called Barbra Harvie went to explore, and the revelation is that the Broxburn Bings now hold more species, including some exceptionally rare plants, than does Ben Nevis.

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It is still no one’s idea of a beauty spot, and this is partly Flyn’s point. When it comes to the wild, we may need to recalibrate our appreciative faculties. The same goes for Canvey Wick in Essex, which was a sediment dump with a half-built oil refinery on top. Deeply unlovely, you’d think, except it’s now rich in biodiversity, holding 300 species of moths and insects so rare they don’t have English names.

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At the heart of the book are micro-expeditions into decaying, built environments where travel writing meets nature writing meets psychogeography. These are wild places. “In an urban environment, entering an abandoned space is the nearest thing we have to stepping off the map,” Flyn writes. She visits Detroit, where acres and acres of once-city are ghostly, blighted, where “one becomes attuned to the various flavours of abandonment, to rising damp, encroaching rot, the pallor of the undead”. Flyn creeps around an abandoned car plant and becomes aware of distant voices, the “scrappers” arrived with their shopping trollies, out to see what they canscavenge. Some citizens remain, trying to hold the blight at bay by bravely mowing the lawns and tweaking the curtains of neighbouring empty houses. It’s a plaintive hope: if they appear inhabited, they may not become drug dens. Downtown, falcons nest on abandoned skyscrapers and coyotes howl within the city limits.

It is a particularly American dystopia, and it prevails also in Paterson, New Jersey, the “ground zero of American capitalism”. Here, Flyn explores abandoned textile mills, wading knee-high through domestic trash and hypodermics, and into a vast turbine hall, part collapsed, like “an animal still breathing its last”. The remaining walls are sprayed with hallucinatory graffiti. Within are makeshift shelters, because people live here, a “skeleton cast of misfits or dropouts”. People may be abandoned, too, Flyn says. They may relish a “freedom” in the marginal places, an “extreme anarchic liberty” in the ruins, but they are lost and unable to be found.

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Such is the rapacious wheel of capitalism. Colonialism also: an unexpected trip is to Tanzania, where the imperial Amani Biological-Agricultural Institute was established in 1902. The German imperial powers have gone, but their plants remain. The Institute was formed to discover which species might thrive and be useful cash crops to the colonial powers. The clear-cutting of native growth and transplanting of species happened on a vast scale, and at Amani the imported species – an “alien invasion” that includes bamboo and sugar palms – are now rampaging through the unique, isolated ecosystem of the Usambara Mountains. “Known horrors had been turned loose upon one of the world’s most isolated, most fragile, most biologically rich habitats… and no one was paying attention.”

However, Flyn mounts an argument based on recent thinking. It’s too late to stop, there can be no reiteration of the “unspoiled”. The best we can hope for is that new ecosystems may evolve and eventually stabilise. A third of the world’s ice-free landmass now supports these “novel” ecosystems, and a long-term policy of non-intervention may allow adaptation and ecological balance to establish itself.

There is human meddling and there is, of course, the natural. Another decidedly non-tourist trip is to the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where between 1995 and 1997 a series of volcanic eruptions left the town of Plymouth entombed under 40ft of ash, lava and mud. The place was evacuated, then abandoned. Now, only the top storeys of buildings protrude. Flyn notes how heaps of ash are colonised by shrubs, how vegetation creeps over destroyed buildings. Ferns grow within an old police station, lizards and bats have colonised empty churches and houses.

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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”. One wonders if there is a Pollyanna-ism at work, a willed optimism that might provide licence for future destruction because, we might say, sometime in the deep future, life will prevail. Flyn is alert to this, acknowledges that she is focusing on the silver linings – and acknowledges, too, the heavy losses that will result from global warming. The pockets of enticing abandonment we create with a mine here or a quarry there will be as nought to the Earth-changing, human-induced climate change. When it comes to planetary impact, “We are the meteor, we are the volcano.” And what will survive of that? 

Kathleen Jamie’s most recent book is “Surfacing” (Sort Of Books)

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape 
Cal Flyn
William Collins, 384pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden