‘A fresh dawn of a new wild’

Islands of Abandonment
by Cal Flyn
(William Collins, £16.99)

Islands of Abandonment is a timely book. When I started reading it, the National Trust was reporting on a year in which wildlife had been taking advantage of the Coronavirus closedown. Peregrine falcons had been nesting in the ruins of Corfe Castle in Dorset, grey partridges wandering in a car park near Cambridge, and a cuckoo had been heard at Osterley, in west London — for the first time in 20 years.

The following day, I caught up with a “Sunrise Sound Walk” the writer Horatio Clare had made for Radio 3, along the tidal flats on the Northumberland coast to Lindisfarne. He was struck by “the great green empty car parks all growing back with grass. It’s as though the whole world out here has been returned to the birds and the weather.”

Islands of Abandonment is about that process of return, and reclamation, happening on a larger scale and over years or decades. Cal Flyn travels to a dozen places — some of them literal islands — that are among the most desolate on earth. Humans have fled from them, because of war, or nuclear meltdown or natural disaster, or because the fish or the oil or the money ran out. Nature has taken back what once was hers and, however bad the damage, embarked on repairs.

Flyn says that what draws her attention is “not the afterglow of pristine nature disappearing over the horizon, but the narrow band of brightening sky that might indicate a fresh dawn of a new wild as, across the world, ever more land falls into abandonment.” That is happening partly because of falling birth rates and partly because intensive farming — whatever its environmental drawbacks — uses fewer acres.

Among places where the “new wild” can be witnessed is a buffer zone that, since 1974, has kept apart the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — a state proclaimed after a Turkish invasion and recognised only by Turkey. The Green Line has proven to be truly green. In a joint study since 2008, scientists from both sides of the fence have recorded 358 species of plants, 100 species of birds (including falcons nesting on a disused control tower), 20 reptiles and amphibians and 18 mammals.

At Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, scene of a nuclear meltdown in 1986, 70 per cent of the exclusion zone is now a forest of birch, maple and poplar. In the worst-affected areas, radiation would have killed all mammals within hours or days, but wolves, lynx, boar, deer, elk, beavers and eagle owls have all reappeared, and in 2014 brown bears were spotted for the first time in a century. On Montserrat, in the Caribbean, where one of the eruptions of the Soufriere volcano in the 1990s entombed the town of Plymouth, the old police station is now shoulder-high with ferns; and a hotel swimming pool, filled with volcanic ash, sprouts grasses, reeds and saplings.

Flyn paints vivid pictures of these places, and, where people have hung on, or edged in, of the lives they lead. She offers sprightly introductions to such topics as succession: the process by which, over time, bare ground may become forest; domicology: the study of the life cycle of buildings; and “rapid evolution”, by which, for example, finches have developed longer beaks to make the most of garden bird-feeders. She shows how attempts to curate or manage the wild have often been misguided or disastrous, and argues that our world, though corrupted, has a great capacity to right itself — “if we can only learn to let it do so”.

What should be “a book of darkness” is instead, she says, “a story of redemption”, a story of how, “when a place has been altered beyond all recognition and all hope seems lost, it might still hold the potential for life of another kind”.

In Thicker Than Water (2016) Flyn followed to Australia an ancestor who led his fellow Scots not only into frontier country but in massacres of Aboriginal people. It was a moving and impressive debut, but her second book is more accomplished. In her acknowledgements, the author writes of the “nerve-wracking prospect” of taking on “a very technical, or contentious, subject with the intention of carving out a clear narrative for a mainstream audience”. She needn’t have worried: Islands of Abandonment is both clear and compelling.

This review appeared originally in print in The Daily Telegraph on February 20, 2021; it’s also online.