Overgrown car

Book Review: Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

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We live in an age of globalisation. We can talk within seconds to people on the other side of the world. Physical journey times across vast distances are a fraction of what they would once have been. As such, it is sometimes hard to imagine there are any corners of our world that are left to their own devices, without man’s interference. But, as Cal Flyn’s wonderful Islands of Abandonment shows, there are places once inhabited, farmed or worked in where now no, or very few, people go. Man has left them for reasons ranging from war or contamination to our changing economies. Flyn sets out to uncover what happens when we leave these landscapes. How does nature respond? And can the answers she finds show us what our future, as the climate crisis intensifies, holds?

Succession in Action

Most of us have walked past derelict industrial buildings at some point. And many of us will have noticed the way nature has taken them over, or at least started to. So, it is unsurprising that some of the sites Flyn visits were once important industrial centres, now abandoned and empty. The first of these are a group of huge, red spoil heaps in West Lothian. Known by some as bings, anyone who has been to Edinburgh Airport will have seen them, without perhaps knowing what exactly they are looking at. The 19 mounds are the remains of what was once an enormous shale oil extraction operation. They are now a remarkable example of how primary succession works. Just as happened at the former coal mines in Speedwell, Bristol, focus of a previous post, pioneer plants slowly colonise completely bare ground. Once these have paved the way, less adventurous plants then follow. Now, some extremely rare plants live on the bings, and they are a haven for birds and animals.

Ragwort Islands of Abandonment
Pioneer plant species, like this ragwort, are quick to establish themselves once man steps back

Former industrial landscapes such as the bings give us hope by showing us how nature can recover through succession. This doesn’t just apply to industry, though. Something I was not aware of until reading Islands of Abandonment was how much former farmland has been abandoned globally over the last 30 years. While visiting Estonia, Flyn sees how the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to this phenomenon in the former bloc. As free market conditions replaced communism, the huge collective farms weren’t able to compete and were quickly abandoned. The result is gradual afforestation. In Estonia alone, tree cover has increased by around 500,000 hectares, mostly by natural processes. Across the former Soviet Union as a whole, farmland abandonment has inadvertently created what Flyn calls the ‘biggest man-made carbon sink in history’. And with the forests come the return of large predators such as wolf, lynx and bear.

Farmland abandonment isn’t confined to the former Soviet Union

The Decline of Industry

Flyn also explores the human side of abandonment. The collapse of Detroit’s car manufacturing industry and resultant city abandonment is already famous. But I hadn’t taken in the sheer scale of the city’s decline before. As manufacturers moved to cheaper locations outside the US, the population shrank by two thirds. Whole neighbourhoods now lie empty, and more than 80,000 properties lie vacant in the city. The result is what some now call ‘urban prairies’. In Detroit’s case, the main cause is a reliance on just one industry, that of car manufacture. Take that away, and once the boom is over, there is nothing left. As she tours the city, once the US’ fourth largest, Flyn sees first-hand how buildings, and indeed whole cities, have life cycles just like biological organisms.

Strachan Henshaw
Manufacturing has declined here in the UK as well as the US, leading to many empty factories

Flyn also visits the former mill town of Paterson, New Jersey. Here she sees that just as we abandon places, people can be abandoned too. As industry declined, both the city’s factories and its inhabitants were left to their fates. Once ‘ground zero of American capitalism’ there are now huge levels of unemployment and homelessness. The city also illustrates how many seemingly abandoned places actually have a ‘skeleton cast’ of people inhabiting them. Some of these have chosen to live life on the margins and welcome the fact most other people have left. But, as Flyn reminds us, this can lead to another definition of abandonment: a lack of restraint such as drug use or violence.

Mill in Lowell, Massachusetts
Huge mills, like this one in Lowell, Massachusetts, drove Paterson’s former boom period

The Wages of War

Past or ongoing wars have also forced man to abandon some places. The result is sometimes positive for nature. No go areas between warring or antagonistic states, for example, prove to be incredibly biodiverse locations. Flyn visits the demilitarised zone dividing the island of Cyprus. This acts as a buffer zone between the Greek-Cypriot Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey. The zone constitutes almost 4% of this Mediterranean island and the lack of human activity within it means it is now a green swath of plants, clearly visible on satellite images. Similar accidental wildlife refuges sprang up along the borders between east and west during the Cold War and in areas disputed by warring tribes in a variety of locations. As Flyn points out, though, it isn’t war itself that helps wildlife, but the resultant absence of people.

Poppies and corn Islands of Abandonment
Disturbance caused by shelling in World War I allowed poppies to spring up across the battlefields

Elsewhere, war has not only stripped a landscape of humans but made it difficult for any organisms to recolonise. One of our abiding images of post-World War I French battlefields is the poppy. Huge numbers bloomed across Flanders both during the war and afterwards, bringing life to what was otherwise a blasted and barren landscape. The poppies benefitted from the disturbance of explosions, plus nitrogen and lime from bombs and rubble. But, as Flyn discovers, there are some sites that are still unpopulated by all but the hardiest plants due to huge levels of contamination from the war. At one site near Verdun where unused chemical weapons were incinerated after the war, the soil is so toxic, only specialist plants able to deal with high levels of heavy metals can grow. Even here there is hope, though. These incredible plants take up the metals and store them, creating a healthier environment for other plants to return eventually, too.

Bladder campion Islands of Abandonment
Like the plants recolonising toxic World War I sites, bladder campion is tolerant of heavy metals

Contamination Zones

Contamination on a much larger scale famously occurred in 1986 at the Chornobyl (the Ukrainian spelling) Nuclear Power Plant, in what was then the Soviet Union, now Ukraine. A huge explosion destroyed one of the reactors, dispersing radiation widely. The highest levels affected areas that are now in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Many of those working at the power station lived in nearby Pripyat, which was quickly evacuated. Some inhabitants thought they would soon return. The abandoned city, though, is now part of a 1,600 square mile exclusion zone. Radiation contamination is so high, this huge area is deemed unsafe for human habitation, although a few people have drifted back over the years. With so few humans around, nature has taken over with 70% of the zone now forested. New arrivals, including wolves, bears, elk and lynx, have replaced the animals killed by the disaster. How healthy they will be in the long-term remains to be seen, although some evidence suggests they are adapting.

Grey wolf
Grey wolves, like this captive animal, now live in large numbers in the Chornobyl exclusion zone

Chemicals and radiation aren’t the only forms of contamination, however. In Tanzania, Flyn visits an abandoned arboretum originally established by the country’s then German colonial rulers in 1902. They imported a huge variety of plant species from around the globe for their project. Taken over by British scientists after World War I, after independence, locals continued working there until funding ran out. Now, with one lone caretaker minding the site, the alien plants have free rein. Many species were unable to establish themselves, but around 16, including bamboos, have escaped the grounds into the surrounding forests. Some fear that these invasive species will outcompete local flora, much of which is endemic to the region. There is a group of scientists, though, who see these ‘novel ecosystems’ resulting from man’s actions, as the only way to save biodiversity. If they are right, and native and non-native species will learn to co-exist, there may be hope for the future.

Bamboos can grow fast and quickly outcompete other plant species

Recovering Hope

Combining extensive research with beautiful writing, this wonderful book takes us to those places which man has turned his back on, having once dominated. Although the reasons for these abandonments vary, Flyn sees similar outcomes at each. Whether emptied by war, contamination, economic collapse or regime change, the deserted, or near-deserted, zones all show signs of returning life, often against the odds. Even an abandoned car park can play host to nature’s recovery. And from that Flyn takes hope for the future of our severely degraded planet. We are in the middle of a climate and biodiversity crisis. But if life really does find a way once we step back and give it room to breathe, we might just be able to find hope too.

Abandoned tv

Further Reading

The sites covered above are just a few of the locations Cal Flyn talks about in her book. With so much to discover within its pages, I can’t recommend this wonderful book enough. It is full of incredible imagery, empathy and insight.

Travis Elborough’s moving book combines maps, photographs and writing to bring to life a host of abandoned sites. These range from forgotten subway stations and flooded malls to ancient ruins and volcanic islands.

Abandoned Places likewise documents the places left to nature by man. A beautiful photographic guide, the book also includes the stories of those places included.

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