Can nature rebound in the post-human landscape?

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“What happens in the absence of humans?” “In ‘ghost towns and exclusion zones, in no man’s lands and post-industrial hinterlands’—what happens when nature is allowed to reclaim its place?”

Those are the major questions asked by the book, Islands of Abandonment, whose subordinate title I turned into this question—Can nature rebound in the post-human landscape?

The author, Cal Flyn, asks us to travel to some of the most desolate places on Earth. She enumerates some of them—a no-man’s land marked by fences, a clearing in the woods, an exclusion zone, and a sea with a deserted shoreline. All these places share one thing in common: they were abandoned by human groups under varying circumstances of war and disaster, the ravages of afflictions, or an economic breakdown.

What happens then?

Flyn presents several cases, beginning from her native Scotland, where she writes of an old way of extracting oil from shale, a kind of sedimentary rock. Before the Middle East assumed dominance in oil production, the site, covered in what is locally termed as “bings,” was closed. The mining villages were no more. The reddish rocks were used for construction, even as the link of the place to mining slowly disappeared. It was in 2004 that one ecologist visited the natural formations in order to survey the flora and fauna there, and discovered instead wildlife. The scientist, Barbra Harvie, gave it the label, “Island Refugia,” little islands of wilderness amidst new physical developments.

What was a wasteland, with reference to T. S. Eliot’s poem, a land “barren beyond description,” Flyn offers us landscape—the bings—of “recuperation and reclamation,” a “self-willed ecosystem” that is “in the process of building new life, of pulling itself bodily from the wreckage.”

The next destination is the Bikini Atoll, a cluster of coral islets with a lagoon so beautiful one wonders why it was selected in the ’40s and ’50s as a testing site for nuclear weapons by the United States. In 1954, a device was tested, its force said to be seven thousand times more than the bomb used for Hiroshima during the Second World War. The blast was so strong it destroyed the corals, the heat from the device burning everything, with the waters in the lagoon heated one can only imagine what impact it had on the marine life in the perimeter. Writing, Flyn says, “It left a barren underwater wasteland, grossly contaminated and utterly devoid of life.”

In 2008, a group of researchers visited the atoll and saw for themselves a new underwater ecosystem. Another team in 2017, this time from Stanford University, would inspect the lagoons again, “and found it was even more densely embroidered with life.” Quoting the project leader, Professor Stephen Palumbo, who described the spot as “visually and emotionally stunning,” the book echoes his realization about how the new reef formation had, in a sense, benefited from the “atoll’s traumatic history.” With human communities removed or evacuated from the site, there was minimal intrusion from people, resulting in more abundant life in the sea.

Flyn has a term for what has occurred in these blighted places—self-seeded ecosystems. From the abandoned shale mines of Scotland to the atoll in the middle of the Pacific, we are witnessing “a great deal about the possibilities and process of natural recovery; about nature’s resilience and capacity to recover after what would seem like a death blow.”

What Flyn tells us is a strong hope amidst destruction and banishment wrought upon by humans on the environment. She calls these stories not of restoration but redemption. One good thing is how the author has not gone blind about the true impact of man’s unthinking interventions as these sites mentioned may really never return to how they were from the beginning. And yet, she says, these cases offer insights into the “processes of reparation and adaptation.”

From “the Waste Land,” the book propels the reader to “No Man’s Land.” This refers to sites and landmarks produced by territorial disputes and wars, most of the time involving internecine politics, banishing not only livelihoods and lives but also populations and heritage.

It is 1974 and Turkey has invaded Cyprus. After a ceasefire has been agreed upon, a demilitarized zone is created. Vast citrus plantations are overrun; families never regain their foothold on their homes and properties. Something happens though; a green line demarcating the separation of two ethnic groups becomes a place where vegetations grow, from mildew or mold, from the “green of decay,” comes the “verdant palette of new life: leaf green, the green of fresh new shoots.”

There is more to this book. I have barely scratched the surface of this work, with chapters on “Revelation” and “The Deluge and the Desert” I yet have to dwell into. The metaphors and images of Biblical import are enticing, threatening treatises on our physical world. But the perspectives being offered are fresh rethinking of the future.In place of an introduction, Islands of Abandonment has an “Invocation.” In it, she talks about a “huge, self-directed experiment in rewilding. Because abandonment is rewilding, in a very pure sense, as humans draw back and nature reclaims what was once hers.” One thing more exciting about Flyn’s book is the fact that she finished it amidst the pandemic, a phenomenon shared by practically all humans. Here also, she recalls for us the reports on wild animals roaming the city streets around the world while we were locked in our homes. For the writer, “these were not so much examples of nature’s healing, as nature finding the confidence to make itself seen.”

Islands of Abandonment is published by VIKING, an Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.


Image credits: Jimbo Albano


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