From dereliction to revival – in conversation with Cal Flyn, author of Islands of Abandonment – Life in a Post-Human Landscape

From dereliction to revival – in conversation with Cal Flyn, author of Islands of Abandonment – Life in a Post-Human Landscape

Although only absolute despair may transpire from the title, Cal Flyn’s last book is bonded with hope.

With an incredible sense of storytelling combined with thorough research and scientific references, the Scottish journalist and non-fictional writer takes the reader to uncanny locations – places bearing traces left by former human inhabitants, where Nature finds ways to reclaim its rights.

From choosing those derelict scenes to replacing humanity within Nature, species among other species, Cal Flyn comes back on the lessons learned from her unconventional experience and that wisdom mankind could benefit from in its frantic race, torn between short-term views and betterment.

C14 – You take the reader to twelve places previously inhabited or used by humans, now in a state of dereliction or transition from it. How did you choose those locations (Did you visit more? On what basis did you make your selection?), how much did you know about them before travelling there, and how difficult were they to access (authorisations, organisations, fear or sense of trespassing, etc.)?

Cal Flyn – I probably visited 20 locations with the hope of including them in the book, but for one reason or another some of them didn’t work out. I knew it would be important for each chapter to present not only the story of a place, but also some greater issue that this place somehow emblematised. So, for example, in the chapter on the Cyprus green line, I wrote more broadly about no man’s lands coming to serve, perversely, as sanctuaries or safe havens for wildlife. Estonian abandoned farmland was the hook for a discussion about the potential of carbon sinking and forest regrowth on land like it, worldwide. I knew I had to be careful not to return to the same issue or story again and again, so it was important to keep variety in subject matter, both geographically and conceptually. 

In terms of access, it varied a lot. Generally I didn’t have much luck in making official applications (to the UN, for example, in the case of the Cyprus green line), so I just turned up and saw what was possible. In Verdun, for example, I was struck my a fenced off clearing in the woods surrounded by razor wire – I knew of its existence but couldn’t get anyone to tell me where it was, so tracked it down on satellite images using historical information, and when I got there there happened to be a hole dug under the fence by some kind of animal. In Paterson, New Jersey, and in Detroit, Michigan, I went in the company of urban explorers who knew where they were going – although this was by no means sanctioned by the property owners. 

Generally they were not too tricky to access in physical terms, but they were difficult to enter in an emotional and psychological way – I found it hard to break rules, even if you have little chance of being caught. There is a strong social pressure to obey “no trespassing” signs, and one fears what might happen if things go wrong. There’s also a great deal of fear of the unknown; fear that is often out of scale with the actual physical danger you are in. But being in the company of others makes it easier – you take courage from one another.

C14 – You refer to “Islands” in your title, although most of the places you describe are not islands per se. You are here addressing the concept of an island as an entity separated from the rest, developing its own, potentially new, endemic species. From your observations and research, how far can this go before interactions with the outside world become inevitable and create new dynamics? 

Cal Flyn – All is interlinked. So true islands are always being besieged by incursions from “alien” species that wash up on their shores, or fly there, or get blown there on the wind. But the further they are from other land masses, the lower the frequency of these arrivals

The same goes for any more metaphorical island; an island of fallow land quite close to a larger woodland, for example, is far more likely to regrow as forest than an island of scrap land in the middle of a dense city, or between enormous monocultural fields, because the seed sources are further away. But, over time, other species will arrive, even if that is only very rarely. Sometimes those species will survive and thrive and set up new populations on this small “island”

C14- Humanity tends to differentiate oneself from other species and at the top of the phylogenetic tree, often acting as a ruler driven by delusions of deity. This is obvious as one may leave without possibly taking care of the leftovers as seen in those abandoned locations. It also has an impact on how Nature takes back its rights or might be “influenced” to do so. What was your perception on the matter as you visited those places? What is your taking on this?

Cal Flyn – I think my main takeaway was understanding, fully, perhaps for the first time, that we are part of nature.

That nature recovers and regenerates after human destruction just as it would from, say, a volcanic eruption or other disastrous natural force. To the other species, it doesn’t much matter if humans made the mess, so long as they can figure out a way to survive in it. Through processes of decomposition, succession, recolonisation and so on, plants and animals will reclaim the space on their own terms, without us. But it might take a long time if we have left a very inhospitable environment behind.

So in that sense, this realisation gave me hope—that very little we have done to the planet is truly un-healable, given time. What we must do is identify what is truly harmful, in the long term, like persistant organic pollutants (which will hang around in an ecosystem, essentially, forever) or anthropogenic climate change, and try to avoid causing damage that is permanent and irreparable.

We must be better citizens on this Earth. At the moment, we are bad neighbours.

Cal Flyn by Nancy MacDonald ©CalFlyn 2020

C14 – You write “Faith, in the end, is what environmentalism boils down to. Faith in the possibility of Change, the prospect of a better future – for green shoots from the rubble, fresh water in the desert. And our faith is often tested.” Are environmentalists hopeless optimists ? And if Nature is to take back its own rights whatever happens, how much does it matter then if we, as an individual and a collective, in the end attend only to our own priorities with no considerations for that dreadful impact our actions may have ?

Cal Flyn – In my experience, some environmentalists are optimists, but most are either realists or pessimists, moved to action by bad news about the state of the planet. I think we all find motivation from different places, and I very much need a sense of hope to continue trying my best on a daily basis, else I fall into despair—other people respond better than I do to fear.

But I do think, for any of us to act in any way, we must have some kind of faith that our actions might make a difference.

Writing Islands of Abandonment has helped me start thinking in the longer term: the potential for forest regrowth over the coming decades, for example—that gives me a lot of hope. Much of this forest will regrow by itself; we shouldn’t panic and create vast, landscape-scale plantations, because that will cause its own issues. But we do need to protect that natural recovery, allow it to happen. It’s difficult, of course, to generalise, when every case must be regarded on its own merits.

But we, as humans, tend to focus on what can be achieved now, or in the next few years.

We need to be thinking on a bigger scale, both geographically and temporally.

And we need to understand ourselves as part of a vast network of species, many of which have abilities and “wisdom” that we do not.

We need to ask: what can be done, and how much of that can we leave to the planet, if we give nature its head?

First published in June 2021, Island of Abandonment – Life one the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn, is now available in English and Dutch, and will soon be in Italian too. Formats are hardback, paperback and audiobook.

One may order from resellers listed on Cal Flyn’s website