Islands of Abandonment

Over the weekend, I read Cal Flyn’s delightful Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape (Viking 2021). I read it, in part, because about five people recommended it to me and, in part, because it felt like the kind of quality non-academic non-fiction that maybe could appear in a class that I might teach in the spring: readings on things. I also had hoped that it might give me some ideas for a paper on the Grand Forks’ Greenway that I’m mulling over for Novembers CHAT conference.

More than any of that, the book is a really great summer read and can be consumed in just one or two sittings. Since it’s a fun and easy read, I’ll spare you the summary and just note a few points that I took away from the book.

1. A Taste of The Mushroom at the End of the World. One of my favorite books of the last few years has been Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton 2015). Islands of Abandonment offers an easy taste of one tiny aspect of Tsing’s work: Flyn explores the forms of flora and fauna that appear in land heavily damaged by human activities. From the disposal of arsenic based weapons in the aftermath of World War I to the coral reefs of Bikini Atoll and the massive shale slag heaps Five Sisters Bing in Scotland, Flyn demonstrates how certain plants and animals find ways to colonize even the most toxic and damaged landscapes. For Tsing, the matusake mushroom, which needs similar environments to thrive, represented both a real example of life in landscapes laid waste by human hands and a metaphor for communities that have emerged at the margins of the modern world. For Flyn, this is just a bit more literal and offers a view of Lovelock and Margulis Gaia Hypothesis which regards the earth as a self-balancing system tempered by the quip from Jurassic Park: nature finds a way. 

2. Corridors and Waypoints. One of the reasons that people recommended the book to me is that Flyn discusses the environment of the Green Line on Cyprus which has become an important corridor for wildlife including the elusive mouflon. During our time working just south of the Green Line in the Sovereign Base Area of the British Dhekelia Cantoment, we regularly encountered environmental scientists, naturalists, and botanists who were documenting the animals and plants that lived in the buffer zone between the built up southern coast of Cyprus and the British bases and along the Green Line. While the “rebounding” of nature in this area is hardly a dividend for the destruction, displacement, and tragedy of the Turkish invasion, it is a lovely example of how nature comes to occupy the interstices of the human world. 

A similar intriguing example is offered by the Salton Sea in California that appeared when the Colorado River overran an irrigation channel in 1905. For a half-century the Salton Sea was a resort destination for both humans living in Southern California, but also a wide range of birds who made the sea a waypoint in their migrations, fish introduced by humans and that found their way into the sea through other means, and various forms of plants and algae. Even in recent years where draughts, field run off, and various other hydrological challenges have turned the sea into seething environment disaster, certain forms of nature – including the seemingly indestructible desert pupfish – continue to thrive in its deoxygenated and toxic waters.

3. Managing Nature. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is Flyn’s engagement with folks who are struggling to balance managing nature in the aftermath of catastrophic human impacts and allowing landscapes to follow their own course. For example, there is a team of residents in Detroit who go out and mow the grass in abandoned parks and blighted houses in an effort to stem the appearance of neglect and show the presence of care. Flyn visits an abandoned botanical research institute in Tanzania where non-native species have invaded the surrounding forest and appear to threaten its distinctive ecosystem. 

In Detroit, the lawn mowers observe that if you mow the grass three times, it becomes a lawn, showing how human intervention is necessary to bring nature to heel. In Tanzania, curiously enough, the initial rampant growth of non-native species seems to have stalled suggesting in some cases human management is not necessary and natural systems do have ways to self-balance.

~

Ultimately the book is long on description and short on universal observations. That said, it’s power comes from the kinds of metaphors that it offers. The book is a literal panarion of metaphors anchored in real encounters between humans and nature. Resilience, perseverance, happenstance, tragedy, and hubris play out across multiple landscapes, situations, and encounters. In Cal Flyn’s able hands, nature is more than a force that merely reacts and adapts to human interventions, but an independent agent that reward constant and careful observation. For Flyn, nature doesn’t follow a particular narrative or tell a single story, but offers abundant metaphors for understanding the human condition.

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