I have a fascination with abandoned places. When I was a kid on a caravan holiday, I wandered off one afternoon and found myself in an abandoned holiday park. It was like stepping into the future. Chalets with broken windows and lawns belching foliage; a desert-dry cracked swimming pool; a shop stocking only dust and bird droppings. All too easy to imagine some disaster. I watched a lot of zombie movies; the living dead would have been my first guess. In fact, I found out later that day, the holiday park had simply been built too close to the crumbling cliffs and, rather than move it, they built another a mile inland.
I’m also a nature enthusiast, my bookshelves peppered with travel books and memoirs and environmental science books about the protracted on-off relationship between humankind and the natural world. I am fascinated by nature’s complexity, its provision of solace and meaning and new ways of thinking, and its ability to adapt and reimagine itself as we impose ourselves upon it.
If you think I’m building up to telling you about a book, you’re right. There’s also some good stuff where I ask the author some questions and let them give you some insight into their work. You’re almost there. I promise.
When I heard about Cal Flyn’s new book ‘Islands of Abandonment’, I was excited: a travel book about abandoned places; a nature book about what the natural world is capable of when we walk away. But ‘Islands of Abandonment’ is more than both of these elements. It is a book about history, and about the future. With immersive descriptions of abandoned places including Cyprus’ no-man’s-land, Chernobyl, Detroit, and the ‘Zone Rouge’ in Verdun, Flyn takes the reader on an international journey to see what humans have done to the planet, the diverse ruins we’ve left behind, and what nature is doing in the places we’ve abandoned.
Cal was kind enough to let me interview her about ‘Islands of Abandonment’, the places she visited and the process of authoring this more-than recommended new book.
You make it clear in ‘Islands of Abandonment’ that this isn’t ruin porn. There is undeniably a human fascination for the ruined and abandoned; where do you think that comes from?
You know, I guess I’m as partial to ruin porn as anyone else, it’s probably what set me down the path to writing ‘Islands of Abandonment’: those striking images of decaying beauty, often without contextual information. It’s a very beguiling aesthetic. But I guess I have a couple of issues with it. First of all, in our rush to appreciate the strange and disturbing beauty of these ruined places, we can forget about the human stories that lie behind them. Ruin porn tends to offer a strange mix of voyeurism and romanticism; probably half of all images of abandoned buildings I’ve seen online seem to be labelled as ‘abandoned asylums’, which is a phrase used as a shorthand for a particular kind of human misery. And yet the truth behind the lazy captions is almost always more interesting.
So, for me it was important to dig down beneath the surface – figure out what it is about these places that draws such a strong reaction, both attracting and repelling us at once, and to tell their true stories. I think ruined and abandoned places offer us a sense of perspective. They show us how, with the passage of time, all our puny anxieties will fade into insignificance. They make us feel small, but part of something far greater. It’s a feeling not unlike that found from scaling a mountain and looking out across the landscape. They say: one day this too will be dust. And that’s horrifying and comforting all at once.
The book contains descriptions of holdouts and new arrivals, not only flora and fauna but people too; What can abandoned places tell us about the landscape and societies that came before? Why do people adhere so passionately to places that others are abandoning?
Holdouts I find really interesting – people who are so embedded in a home place that they won’t let it go, even as it dissolves around them. I think in many cases it’s rather noble; I met, in Detroit, people who instead of abandoning their community sought to rebuild it – people who cut the grass in their neighbours’ lawns, or boarded up buildings to save them from being squatted. People who started community gardens on vacant lots. Elsewhere, I have read of people who refuse to sell up and leave despite major risks to their health – in Centralia, Pennsylvania, for example, a fire in a coal mine under the town means that smoke often belches from the drains, and the asphalt warps with heat; in Wittenoom, Western Australia, a small number of people decline to leave a town where asbestos was quarried until quite recently. I think this speaks to our need for place and familiarity. In Chernobyl I met a man who moved, with his family, back into the exclusion zone only a year after the nuclear accident, because the life they were offered in Kiev was so unlike the one they had before. Home ground is a real need for humans, and we do not easily give it up.
Your previous book was about the colonisation of Australia; we find ourselves in a cultural moment where more of us are asking questions about how we remember the past and our nation’s global impact and our national identity. Do you think that ideas about the ‘preservation’ of nature are bound up with ideas around nationalism? Can nature, like society, be ‘preserved’, or does it need to be allowed to change, to follow its own self-propelled progression?
Yes absolutely – ideas of ‘purity’ in nature have often in the past been taken up by nationalist movements, perhaps most notably by the Nazis. I write in one of my chapters about the Nazi breeding projects that attempted to recreate the aurochs, the ancient predecessor to our domestic cow. There was also an interesting article in the New Statesman about ‘eco-fascism’ which is worth your time.
Saying that, I don’t think that your average UK environmentalist is bound up in sinister extremist movements. I guess it’s just something to be aware of – that the pursuit of the pristine and the disgust with impurity can lead us down bad paths.
Whether nature can be ‘preserved’ or not depends I think on your definition of preserved. Certainly, it can be given space and freedom; but can we keep a landscape in aspic? No. I think much more awareness of this question is permeating through the whole conservation movement; it’s an issue that everyone is reckoning with, especially in the face of climate change.
In addition to writing books, you’re a journalist. Is there a crossover between journalism and the longer form travel writing? When you tackle a book project, do you approach it in the same way you would a shorter piece of journalism?
Yes and no. It’s true in both cases that it’s always better to go places and speak to people, and base your writing on something concrete. But the writing of a 90,000-word book is necessarily different to one of my 350-word ‘country diary’ pieces for the Guardian, for example. Often for a short piece, you only need to make one point – in fact it’s better if you do. But for a book it really needs an argument, a shape. That’s the really hard bit. I did have a glimpse of my final argument when I wrote the proposal, but it took a lot of reworking, research and reshaping to give it that ‘through-line’ … the thread that draws you through the whole book, stringing each chapter and each visit together like a necklace. Anyway, that’s the intention.
What was it like completing a book during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Actually, I had just finished my first draft when the pandemic hit Europe. My editor was reading it when lockdown came in, and she sent an excited email saying that she wanted to bring publication forward! It seemed timely, as it was just while those reports of ‘nature reclaiming the streets’ were proliferating online. I didn’t actually agree with a lot of those reports – they didn’t stand up to scrutiny, but they did show us how closely nature already coexists with us and how quickly it makes itself seen when we withdraw. I did make some changes, especially in the chapters where I talk about past impacts of pandemics — for example the huge amounts of land abandonment after the Black Death. That had seemed somewhat airy and hypothetical when I wrote it, and then suddenly it seemed too close for comfort.
I was so, so lucky that all my research had been completed before lockdowns and border closures. I don’t know what I would have done had I been only halfway through my travels.
Your writing is peppered with references and responses to other authors; how much is your writing governed by the ideas of others? At what stage of the project do you begin to consider what others have written on the same subject?
I tend to consider what others have said while I’m writing, so quite late on – I do initial research into the facts of a place, go there, then do my reading around after I know what the thrust of my argument will be. That way I don’t go down too many rabbit holes. But of course, there’s always a lot of reading that doesn’t lead anywhere or end up in the final piece.
I also find it easier to concentrate on research when I understand what it’s ‘for’; if I’m passing through a book with a pencil for underlining things, and seeing how it ties into my own argument, then I find it really lights up my brain. Then I take notes in one big document for each chapter, with relevant quotes and sometimes bullet points summarising other people’s arguments, so that I can easily search for the name or word later when I’m thinking ‘didn’t X say something like this? I should look it back up’
In your travels for writing ‘Islands of Abandonment’ you go to a massive variety of places, and you describe them vividly. Were there any places that made you frightened?
Thank you. Weirdly, I found that I was most frightened by the sense that I shouldn’t be somewhere, rather than any particular physical danger. Climbing through broken windows or shinning over fences is always rather nerve-racking, because of the mental boundary you are crossing.
Probably I was most frightened on Swona, the abandoned Scottish island where I spent 24 hours and slept in a ruined house. I knew I was safe there, but I felt nauseous from the extreme solitude, and the birdlife made me feel so unwelcome! I was threatened by bonxies (great skuas) and divebombed by Arctic terns, and generally was quite psyched out by it. It was Hitchcockian. I work a lot with horses, so I know how they can be jumpy and spooky when taken out alone; I think humans are the same. We’re social animals. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, lying in my sleeping bag in a dusty room while birds bumped around in the roof space overhead.
What would be your advice for policy-makers deciding what to do with abandoned places? With the objective of redeeming nature and ecological diversity, is it simply a case of walking away?
It’s tricky, but yes possibly. There’s a trade off with remediation: if you do it early, when there is no wildlife to disturb, then I think you can achieve a lot. But if we are talking about sites that have been abandoned for decades, I think that sometimes we do more harm than good by ‘restoring’ the site to some imagined ‘before’ state. Often ugly or derelict sites are home to vast arrays of invertebrate and reptile life; it may not be obvious to the untrained eye. Ruined buildings can house bats and barn owls, all sorts. So, I think what we do need to learn is to live with untidiness, as that can be ecologically useful. We must learn that it’s okay for the landscape not to be well tended; it shouldn’t be one big garden stewarded by us. We need to learn to give way, to cede control.
Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn is available from Mr B’s.
Sam’s curated list of books to accompany ‘Islands of Abandoment’ can be found here: ‘Islands of Abandonment and further reading‘.