Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape

By Cal Flyn

Viking, 2021; 384 pages; $27.00

There is a fertile creative tension between the elegant prose of Cal Flyn’s environmental travelogue and the dozen ravaged destinations of her itinerary. These are not places that, one thinks, would lure the lover of wild nature: The “Zone Rouge” near Verdun, France, so heavily mined that, a century after the Great War, it is still off-limits to the public; Pripyat, a derelict village in Ukraine, evacuated in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown; Arthur Kill, an industrial graveyard across the water from Manhattan, where the wrecks of hundreds of superannuated ships lie rusting amidst marshlands saturated with toxic chemical waste; Swona, an abandoned island off northern Scotland whose cattle, on their own for fifty years, have reverted to a feral state.
    Though the remains of intensive agriculture, industrialization, and urbanization linger in these uninhabited lands, nature is finding ways to take them back. Pripyat’s citizens have departed, its school buildings are crumbling, its café is a jumble of corroded beams and peeling plaster, and yet the city remains abustle with life. These days, Flyn writes: “Pripyat is the territory of the birch and the maple and the poplar…Apartment blocks rise like concrete islands from a sea of green…Saplings lean precipitously out from upper balconies. Creepers climb signposts, balancing awkwardly on the upper edges with nowhere else to go.” The forest has reoccupied metropolitan Chernobyl, and the population of every wild animal has at least doubled in number since the disaster, from wolves to beavers to eagle- owls. Brown bears roam freely where none had been seen for over a century.  
    Each site experiences reclamation in a different way, to be sure, for each site has suffered wounds unique to its history. In Cyprus, where a narrow strip of no-man’s land divides the Turkish north from the Greek south, Cyprus mouflons (Ovis orientails ophion), wild sheep native to the island, flourish in the shelter of abandoned farmhouses. In Detroit, stricken with a steep decline in manufacturing jobs, “urban prairie” has taken over blocks of vacant lots. Fields of tall grass have moved in, overlaying and crowding out the ornamental trees and shrubs that are “ghosts of gardens past.” Atlantic killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus), also known as the mummichog, or mud minnow, have been surviving and even breeding in the polluted waters of northern New Jersey, evolving by “unnatural selection” to be as much as eight thousand times more resistant to industrial waste than other less-adaptive fish.
    There is a renewed scientific interest in ecosystems like these, Flyn notes, and it is not surprising, considering the increasing extent to which our booming population and exploitative development alter the world. Abandoned places teach us how much damage these alterations bring about, and how rapidly nature moves in to repair the damage, if not to eliminate it entirely. There is hope here: wildness always seems to find a way to take over when occupying human forces leave the scene. But Flyn’s travels also seem to validate Goethe’s caution that “what is, has never yet been; what has been, comes not again.” Nature may heal, and life go on, but the marks of our footprints leave lasting scars. --LAM

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