Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment feels like it fits nicely on the shelf between Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse and A Kendra Greene’s Museum of Whales You Will Never See (Granta titles all, and indicative possibly of a certain editorial interest in a peculiarly wayward vision) – in that what you have here is a tremendously interesting, tremendously literate, picaresque of sorts around places that have been left to their own devices, largely as a result of humanity’s involvement.
The first thing to know is that, as if with O’Connell and Greene’s respective books, Cal Flyn is present as a narrator, sliding down scree here, sneaking under fences there, tiptoeing through (probably) toxic water, using Google maps to track down where all of the ingredients of despicable chemical warfare were once burned. She is an extremely likeable and erudite voice. If you enjoy the feeling that a nonfiction book can sometimes provide of spending time in the company of an interesting person, then Islands of Abandonment will give you that feeling in spades.
Where does she take us, you might well ask? Well, let’s just say the book is the veritable definition of globetrotting – Scotland, Chernobyl (another O’Connell connection), Detroit, the Caribbean, Verdun in France, the Tanzanian mountains, Cypress and Korea to name but a few. She is drawn to those places that have been damaged in some way – by industry, by disasters both natural and man-made, physical and economic. She strikes a tone that is both surprising and (we’d go as far to say) optimistic, in that there are places that might offend the eye that are actually habitats to rare creatures, and places in which disaster has seen animals and plants evolve quickly to adapt. She isn’t an apologist and has no time for the argument that climate change is an exaggeration, but she does offer curious and unusual hope (even if that hope might manifest itself after humanity as a species has exited stage left pursued by bear).
“This should be a book of darkness, a litany of the worst places in the world. In fact, it is a story of redemption: how the most polluted spots on Earth – suffocated by oil spills, blasted by bombs, contaminated by nuclear fallout or scraped clean of their natural resources – can be rehabilitated through ecological processes.”
Islands of Abandonment is full of the kinds of glorious knowledge that will have you shaking your head in surprise, whether it’s the fact that the fall of the Soviet Union helped create Estonian forests that are believed to be at the root of preventing the very worst aspects of climate change right now, the story of the moth that adapted to air pollution in the 18th century, trees that draw poisonous nitrates from the soil and thrive or the aside about migratory birds who stop off in the Korean DMZ each year, the book is awash in bright nuggets of lively interest.
And in case you were wondering whether Flyn’s optimism got in the way of hard-nosed pessimism, she does address that, head on:
“…everywhere I have looked, everywhere I have been – places bent and broken, despoiled and desolate, polluted and poisoned – I have found new life springing from the wreckage of the old, life all the stranger and more valuable for its resilience.”
You can read Islands of Abandonment and glimpse a future, darker even than now, in which – nevertheless – there are reasons to be optimistic. “This is a corrupted world, yes,” she writes, “but it is a world that knows how to live. It has a great capacity for repair, for recovery, for forgiveness – of a sort…” It’s reassuring in a strange way, a book that pulls no punches and yet still manages to bewitch you with a new found interest in places you might previously have dismissed as eyesores.
Like Notes from an Apocalypse you’ll read enjoying the time you spend in Flyn’s company; like with Museum of Whales You Will Never See you’ll enjoy visiting places you’ll likely never go yourself (Flyn is a great one for ignoring signs saying do not pass). As with each of those books, you’ll read wanting to hold all of it on your head and you’ll castigate yourself for not being able to remember every sparky moment of illumination. But the illumination, and the memory of the pleasures to be had in reading the book, remain all the same.
Any Cop?: It’s a captivating piece of nonfiction, well written and erudite, entertaining and thrilling in equal measure, both contemplative and urgent.