Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: February

Jennifer Lucy Allan | 2nd February 2021

Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment — about ghost towns and exclusion zones, no man’s lands and fortress islands — is our Book of the Month for February. Jennifer Lucy Allan reviews.

In Islands of Abandonment, Scottish writer and journalist Cal Flyn is interested not so much in environments still under human control, but ones where humans have departed. It is about what happens after accidents, after carelessness has done its damage, after ignorance or blunder has decimated a place. What happens when colonialists abandon their projects; when industries collapse; when the last inhabitants leave or reactors meltdown, or when the white light of atom bombs has faded from the skies? 

The answers to her questions are found in sites that are ruined, cordoned off, or abandoned, from the towns on Montserrat that were swallowed by volcanic ash in the mid-1990s, to the Chernobyl exclusion zone; from botanical gardens in Tanzania to the Scottish island of Swona, now only populated by a herd of feral cows. The sites Flyn visits present their histories in flora and fauna; in the lack of it or the abundance of invasive or resilient species. Her route through these sites is utterly compelling, a narrative that shifts between first person experiences of difficult to access sites – squeezing under fences and navigating military presence in the Cyprus Buffer Zone – to stories about these places that add complexity and empathy to our understandings of people and nature. Crucially, Islands of Abandonment challenges our presumptions about what, in Western culture, constitutes a beautiful landscape. The subtext is this: that what we perceive as aesthetically pleasing might not be species rich or ecologically diverse. 

The Five Sisters are slag heaps in West Lothian, Scotland. These ugly mounds of red shale are waste material from the oil industry but have become wildlife refuges, containing hares, red grouse, skylarks, ringlet butterflies and elephant hawkmoths, as well as a number of rare orchids. More generally, ‘derelict buildings – strangely beautiful in their slow decay – offer, too, hiding places for hibernating butterflies and moths, whose chrysalides and cocoons have been spotted in their hundreds there hanging on dank, dark walls’, she writes, noting that ‘…it is becoming increasingly well recognised that ruinous, utterly neglected sites such as these have become refugia for wildlife.’

Within these stories, not only are our perceptions of a place as ugly or beautiful, natural or human-made challenged, but also our assumptions about conservation. The complexity of our entanglements with the ecosystems we encounter is exposed, and as such, there is no monolithic ‘nature’ to speak of in Islands of Abandonment. Flyn (happily) rejects the linear narratives that claim nature is healing; that we can restore environments to untouched states, or species to their pre-domesticated forms. 

Flyn’s refusal to reach for general messages is bold, particularly on topics such as climate and ecology, where there is so much at stake and so many currently at risk. But perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, as the sites she visits could provide myriad contradictory lessons for conservation should she have extrapolated overarching imperatives. Instead, she does the hard work of showing us complexity and nuance. 

The feral cows on uninhabited Scottish island of Swona are the descendants of the domestic cattle kept by the last family to live on the island. While the cows might be feral, exhibiting previously undocumented behaviours such as funeral rituals and battles for dominance, Flyn nonetheless notes that domestic cows could never be un-domesticated now. While there are some attempts to breed back the colossal pre-agrarian horned aurochs of classical literature, to do so would be self-defeating, she writes. ‘What could be more artificial than selectively breeding animals based on superficial traits’, she asks, attempting to bring back an animal which is ‘as much myth as reality’? Flyn worries that ‘in pining for the landscapes and wildlife of the distant past – ones that have never existed in quite the way we envisage – we risk creating false idols’. 

There are many startling visions in Islands of Abandonment, from both historical sources and Flyn’s first hand accounts, some vivid and surreal, others so deeply unexpected as to read like hallucinations. She writes of how the dye mills on the banks of the Passaic would turn half the river red while the other half steamed purple, and how, in June 1918, the water was so polluted with oil, creosote and acid, that the river itself caught fire and burned for hours. The Salton Sea, a ‘roiling cauldron’ of various toxins, including fertilisers, meant that for a time there was a synthetically beefed-up ecosystem where 100kg of fish could be caught in an hour, but where algal blooms ‘exploded into life as cloudbursts of jade and malachite’ or turned the water red ‘like a good burgundy’. 

These uncanny visions of destruction that accumulate — whether erupting volcanoes, burning piles of leftover WWII bombs, or invasive botanical gardens — are alarming and uncomfortable, but also deeply compelling case studies on how the effects of natural or man-made disasters can make landscapes unrecognisable. The experiences of these sites are often dystopian or psychedelic; some feel so extreme as to belong in the realm of the speculative fiction writer. To make sense of these dissociations between the real and the imagined, Flyn often calls on fiction: a filming location for Tarkovsky’s Stalker (based on the novel Roadside Picnic); the museum of human detritus in Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven; notions of freedom in Margaret Atwood’s dystopias, and the strangling red weeds in HG Wells’ War Of The Worlds. She draws on these sci-fi and dystopian visions not for evidence, but to emphasise how these images are ones more familiar to fantasy than nature writing, and also because science-fiction and fantasy has much more frequently evoked the exclusion zones and refuges she explores than traditional non-fiction.   

Flyn has empathy, rather than voyeuristic tendencies, towards the people she encounters. She writes that in her search for abandoned places ‘I focused first on the absence of people: this seemed to be pre-requisite. But almost everywhere I look, I have found these ‘deserts’ still peopled – by a skeleton cast’. This skeleton cast often speak, offering their own reasons for being in these supposedly abandoned places – those living in makeshift shelters in the industrial ruins of Paterson, New Jersey, those living in Detroit houses beset by blight, or the desert shanty town of Slab City in California, the latter a haven for ‘dropouts, drifters, hippies, tweakers, artists, outlaws, runaways, and survivalists’. People can be abandoned too, she finds, whereas others might have made the choice to escape – and everyone’s situation is different. ‘In an urban environment, entering an abandoned space is the nearest thing we have to stepping off the map’, she writes. 

Towards the end of the book Flyn turns to the elephant in the room: the climate crisis and the attendant pitfalls of dealing with it, from potential misanthropy in pure strains of environmentalism, to the risk that stories of environments recovering threatens to add fuel to climate denial, and that a virus like the one we are experiencing now is a way of allowing nature to heal. She stares down and unpicks each of these in turn. She does not promise survival, nor does she offer solutions (and definitely no counter-arguments) to the climate crisis, but does raise questions about invasive forms of conservation, noting how ‘once we have left our mark on an ecosystem, we show no hesitation in throwing open the bonnet again later to fiddle with its workings’. 

A book about abandoned sites is a can of worms – I’d expected to be squirming at indulgent accounts of scrambles around crumbling ruins, or profound but inaccurate proclamations about The State Of Things by page three, but thankfully, there is no ruin porn in Flyn’s book, no lusting after apocalypse or the death of humanity, and she doggedly, and impressively, resists overarching generalisations. As such, Islands of Abandonment is a joy; a refreshingly nuanced and vividly (and sometimes trippily) observed account of environmental refuges and abandoned places. This is a book about how there is no going back, about how the earth is a messy place, and how we as humans are messy creatures upon it — but it offers neither salvation nor condemnation, and instead, gives a clear-eyed account of how life might carry on. 


Islands of Abandonment is out now, published by William Collins. You can buy a copy here (£16.99).

Jennifer Lucy Allan’s debut book The Foghorn’s Lament, charting the history of the foghorn, will be published in May. You can pre-order a copy here.