The Battle of Verdun raged for three hundred days – the longest battle the world has ever seen. Forty million shells were dropped, more than six for every square metre of the battlefield. The conflict left behind a desert in which the soil had undergone the equivalent of ten thousand years of natural erosion. After the war, an arc of land around Verdun was deemed too broken and dangerous to be inhabited. Shaded red on a map by a bureaucratic pencil, it became known as the Zone Rouge. Hardy black pines were planted and the area was abandoned.
In Islands of Abandonment, Cal Flyn seeks out places like the Zone Rouge, where human activity has gone too far and humans have had to leave. In the Zone Rouge, unexploded ordnance is still a serious hazard, but it doesn’t bother the trees and birds too much. Its noxious dark heart, the Place à Gaz, is another story. There, 200,000 rounds of surplus chemical weapons were – for want of any other option – piled up and burned, leaving behind scorched, dusty ground. In 2007, German scientists analysed the soil of this lunar landscape and found that 17 per cent of its weight was made up of arsenic. The ground wasn’t poisoned – it was poison.
But life is encroaching on this ‘chemical burn in the landscape’. Tufted grass and powdered goblet lichen are incrementally pushing into the contaminated area. In the vanguard is ‘a soft and feathery moss known as Pohlia nutans’, a ‘magpie plant’ that takes up the toxic heavy metals from the ground and accumulates them in its leaves. Why? No one knows. But it is not just finding a way to live in this toxic soil; it’s actively cleaning it.
Flyn isn’t interested so much in what we’ve done to nature as in how it bounces back. ‘What draws my attention’, she writes, ‘is not the afterglow of pristine nature as it disappears 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.’ More of the world being abandoned – is that right? We assume that as our numbers increase, so we claim more territory from the wild. But in fact our activity is increasingly concentrated in smaller areas and, in the developed world at least, we are leaving more land to its own devices.
Europe has been steadily reforesting for decades, and will continue to do so. The trend has been even more remarkable in the former Soviet Union, where there has been an abandonment of unviable state agriculture and a flight to the cities. This has had profound importance for the climate: between 1992 and 2011, the recovery of ex-Soviet farmland might have had an effect equivalent to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 7.6 gigatons (it’s difficult to measure precisely). Of course, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, but this case points to energetic rewilding being one way we might help stave off climatic catastrophe.
Flyn hopes that Islands of Abandonment will teach us a new way of looking at ‘eyesore sites’. ‘Ugly’ or ‘worthless’ places may turn out to be deeply ecologically significant. Indeed, ‘their ugliness or worthlessness might very well be the quality that has kept them abandoned, saved them from redevelopment or overenthusiastic “management” – and, therefore, destruction’. The story of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which Flyn visits, and its flourishing wildlife is a familiar one; the environmentalist James Lovelock has suggested (perhaps with a note of satire) that its ecological recovery has been so successful that maybe we should use radioactive isotopes to keep other areas free from human intrusion. A few of Flyn’s destinations are firmly established on the dubious ruin-tourism trail, including Detroit and Varosha, an abandoned resort on Cyprus stranded in an area cordoned off by the Turkish army in 1974. But she also visits unfamiliar places like Arthur Kill, a tidal strait between Staten Island and New Jersey that you should not visit as it is flamboyantly poisonous. Still, there’s life there: ‘All the crabs you could eat. They look healthy enough. But a single Newark blue-clawed crab carries enough dioxin in its body to give a person cancer.’
Many animals and plants have evolved to cope with the effects of our activities. But how might animals adapt to being left alone? Flyn finds an answer to this question on Swona, a Scottish island that has been uninhabited since the mid-1970s. When the last humans left, they could not take their cows with them, so the herd was left to its own devices. I’ve long assumed that cows, bred for our convenience, would be doomed without us. But the Swona herd has survived almost half a century, through several generations. It has lost patience with humanity, becoming wild and dangerous, and learning (or remembering) behaviour alien to their domesticated brethren. The cows purposefully trample the bones of their dead, and become curiously attentive, even reverential, around the dying. We get a glimpse of ‘the true nature of an animal too often dismissed as a dim-witted, cud-chewing automaton. They give us insight into the weight afforded to death among a species we farm and slaughter on an industrial scale.’ Already warned about the feral cattle, Flyn is menaced by seabirds in this strange place. Her account of her journey to Swona is among the most haunting in this memorable book: ‘The whole island feels to be growing incensed at my presence.’
Modern nature writing has evolved to be a little more tough-nosed than it was in the days of Evelyn Waugh’s feather-footed questing vole, but it can still be blighted by a self-conscious high style. Flyn, a journalist, thankfully keeps a tight rein on this, writing taut and interesting descriptions of the places she visits, deploying artful images and unobtrusive wit. The arsenal of facts and figures is well targeted. Only at the end of each chapter does the high style creep in. Sentences shorten. Swallows wheel. The page turns. But it’s kept to nontoxic levels.
An ecological polemic must walk a tightrope. If it presents an overly confident picture of natural resilience, it will lull the reader into a false sense of security. If it is bleak about the condition of the planet and the prospects for humanity – even if that is where the facts point – it might fill the reader with despair. Islands of Abandonment avoids these perils. It gives us grounds for hope, while not understating the huge task that awaits us in changing course away from catastrophe. In the final chapters, taking in volcano-devastated Montserrat and California’s Salton Sea, a manmade lake turning into a man-made desert, her tone turns catastrophic, even as she sidesteps and critiques the careless misanthropy that can afflict the eco-tract. This is a fresh, provocative and valuable book.