Tuesday 21 June 2022

Review by Tracey Foster of "Islands of Abandonment" by Cal Flyn

In post-war bombed-out Britain, nature crept over and slowly reclaimed the wasteland in our towns, leading the director of Kew Gardens E. J. Salisbury to write about ‘the rapid clothing of blackened scars of war by the green mantle of vegetation.’ This book too is a hymn to the rewilding of a post-human landscape.

Travelling to all the remotest parts of the world post industrialisation, Flyn describes in beautiful prose the quiet, calming effect of nature’s restorative powers. Places that are regarded as cast off, inhuman dead zones - abandoned industrial waste, derelict buildings, nuclear fallout areas - all are found to have let nature creep in and take over: 'The glasshouse stands chest-deep in thistles. They grow tightly packed, straight up, soft heads fluffed and overripe, coming loose at the sides, ruffled by the draughts that seep through the broken panes. Thistledown hangs in the air, shifting on almost imperceptible currents, moving slowly through shafts of light.'

The nuclear test zone of Bikini Atoll, used exclusively in the 40s and 50s, was found in 2008 to contain a lagoon of kaleidoscopic life and be one of the most impressive underwater reefs on earth. Time and time again Flyn explores examples of nature moving in as man moves out. Nature thrives as she is left alone to repair what we have damaged. But Flyn gives us a word of warning: ‘these are not stories of redemption but restoration,’ for the land is always immeasurably altered and never replaced. 

A note of hope comes from recent science that shows that after competing with a global market, 63 million hectares of Soviet farmland was abandoned and is now contributing to the carbon capture of 7.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Part of this was the huge area around the nuclear plant of Chernobyl that was abandoned in 1986. Flyn's visit to the rewilded region takes on even more poignancy since the outbreak of the current war in Ukraine. How much has now been lost after so many gains will need to be told another day. 

This book is not just based on scientific study. Flyn also references a wider literature heritage from Milton’s Paradise Lost, to T. S. Elliot’s Wasteland and H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. This book should appeal to all as it draws from so many backgrounds. 

Flyn recently won the Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award and spoke about her childhood in a wheelchair. Born with one leg shorter than the other, she underwent over twenty operations before the age of fifteen and was determined to not let this stop her. In this book she describes climbing under barbed wire and into derelict buildings to reach every part of the post-human landscape and takes her time to note every leaf and moss patch.

Quoted in the Sunday Times, she said, ‘some people have described my book as polemic, but I see it as anti-polemic.’ Can we ever replace what we have lost? Looking across the industrial New Jersey Bay she is reminded of the sculptor Robert Smithson: 'It does feel like a landscape of abandoned futures: where derelict mills and warehouses stand awkwardly along the waterfront, and clapboard houses in white and baby blue crowd between the ankles of bridges and flyovers and stacks of disused shipping containers a hundred metres high tower over everything and, away to the west, the sun going down.'

As the sun goes down, we all hope that nature can put a plaster on our man-made wounds and at least help to heal some of the damage that we have created: 'We are in the midst of a huge self-directed experiment in rewilding. Because abandonment is rewilding. This should be a book of darkness, a litany of the worst places in the world. In fact, it is a story of redemption.' 

About the reviewer
Tracey Foster started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she has taken the MA course in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by Comma Press, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine and The Arts Council.

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