BOOK REVIEW
Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

Hon. Eliot D. Prescott

March 2022

Across our earth, there are places humans have simply abandoned. Some are recognizable to us:  Chernobyl, Ukraine and significant portions of Detroit, Michigan.  Others may be less familiar: Swona, Scotland; Plymouth, Monserrat; and the land contaminated by unused World War I poison-gas canisters in Zone Rouge in Verdun, France. These are locales that have been devastated or otherwise abandoned as a result of man-made ecological catastrophes, natural disasters, war, and economic collapse.

 

Nature, though, has reclaimed these abandoned landscapes with shocking alacrity, sometimes against all odds, and in unexpected ways. Cal Flyn, an award winning author and investigative journalist from the Scottish Highlands, travels to these places and others and returns with surprising lessons to be learned from seemingly-ruined sites and the novel ecosystems that subsequently arise.

 

In this frightening era of climate change and ecological devastation, some of these lessons are surprisingly optimistic. As she writes, "when a place has been altered beyond recognition and all hope seems lost, it might still hold the potential for life of another kind." In areas that we would expect to support little life, vegetation flourishes. These plants often grow in heavily contaminated soils, "hyperaccumulating" toxins in their cells, and

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suggesting organic forms of remediation of brownfields and other polluted areas. Fish become tolerant of PCBs in concentrations that would kill many other forms of life. Organisms adapt in these new environments at an evolutionary pace that is astounding.  The DMZ [demilitarized zone] between North and South Korea contains thousands of endangered species that cannot otherwise be found on the Korean peninsula.

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Despite her optimism, Flyn does not excuse our environmental devastation and warns of the grave and irreparable harm unless we change. But she also argues that we must also proceed carefully in our efforts to repair what we did our best to ruin.  With often good intentions, humans too quickly leap to intervene in damaged ecosystems, replacing one negative cause with others. This over-intervention, Flyn reasons, stems from our collective guilt and poses "one of the biggest ethical quandaries at the heart of environmental conservation."

 

Flyn's probing and sometimes risky explorations to these abandoned places should serve as a call for all of us to travel inward as well.  Like our planet, we have places that we have abandoned in our hearts. Places inside of us damaged by neglect and the pace of our hurly-burly, modern lives. Many have abandoned our connection to and appreciation of nature and other forms of beauty. As nature has restored and healed the abandoned places described by Flyn, let us also look to these places inside of us. Let us allow, in the words of Flyn, "new life [to spring] from the wreckage of the old, life all the stranger and more valuable for its resilience."

Hon. Eliot D. Prescott is a Sierra Club Connecticut volunteer