New Humanist: Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

Cloud islands, they are called. The peaks of the Usumbara Mountains in Tanzania rise so high that fogs form on their slopes where the cool mountain air meets warmer currents rising off the sea. The climate has created a unique ecosystem, as real islands do, and much of the wildlife is unique to the area. Even there, much of it is vanishingly rare. The Amani tree frog, for instance, was discovered in 1926 inside a wild banana; it has never been seen again.

At least, that is how things were. In 1902, the authorities in what was then German East Africa built the Amani Biological-Agricultural Institute there, planting over 600 species of tree and shrub, alongside 2,000 species of plant. Empires rise and empires fall; the institute itself fell into disrepair. No-one tended the gardens, so the trees and plants took over. Researchers worried that indigenous species would be over-run. (It’s a particular niche, this, known as ‘invasion biology’, and its frame of reference is startlingly colonial, pitching ‘natives’ against ‘aliens’ or ‘invaders’.)

The concerns were well founded: more than half of the most invasive plant species in the world are thought to have escaped from botanical gardens. One lake in Java has lost 70% of its surface to a thick mat of water hyacinth, which found its way there from a garden 500 miles to its west. The escape of a species of giant rhododendron from Kew Gardens in the 19th century was so notorious one newspaper ran a cartoon of the plant scaling the walls and absconding on a number 27 bus.

At Amani, one tree in particular, Maesopsis eminii looked to be running riot, accounting for fully a third of the large trees in the region’s newer growth forests. But, Flyn says, the local flora fought back: sometime this century a native fungus started attacking the Maesopsis, wreaking havoc on its numbers. Nature is finding an equilibrium. Given enough time, it always will, with or without us. As for humanity, even when we try to do good, we do harm. “We run the Earth as if it were one giant botanical garden to tend: passing judgement on species, playing God,” Flyn writes.

This is a book, then, about what happens when we stop. Stop with the damage, sure: the ravages of war, industrialisation, ideology. But stop interfering too. Step back, let things happen. Nature is an orchestra that wants to improvise; we should stop insisting it sticks to the score.

In pursuit of this thesis, Flyn reports from some extraordinary locations: the itinerary for Islands of Abandonment includes a First World War chemical weapons site where the soil is 17% arsenic; a derelict fertiliser plant whose legacy includes levels of dioxin which reach, if my maths is correct, 1.65 billion times the safe limit; and where else but the Dead Zone around Chernobyl, the most radioactive place on the planet. Rather her than me, I thought, turning the pages; it is a brave book, in more ways than one.

And yet anyone picking up this book greedy for ruin porn will be disappointed. Astonishingly, perhaps, and without once flinching from the horror, Flyn finds cause for hope in even the most toxic and despoiled environments on Earth. Left alone, wildness revives. Around the world, there are now some 2.9 billion hectares of what is called ‘recovering secondary vegetation’ – former arable and pasture, thickening woodland – more than twice the area under crop. Since 1991, a third of Soviet farmland has been abandoned – some 63 million acres – an area the size of France. Russia may have met the terms of the Kyoto Protocol just through the abandonment of farmland alone.

Of one fish, which can survive in waters so saline the human equivalent might be drinking petrol, Flyn says it has a superpower: adaptation. But really, it is nature – the vast, intricate ecosystems of the planet, almost transcendental in their interconnectedness – which properly lays claim to that. When we want to undo our harms, our goal is usually to put things back to how we think they were: to rewild, to rewind, to restore the world to some prelapsarian pristine state. Nature simply makes things new.

Why, though, are we unable to let go? One of the great strengths of this subtle and profound book is that it also a quiet exploration of aesthetics in the natural world, of how we conceive beauty and value; not many books of nature writing cite Marcel Duchamp approvingly. More, Flyn understands that our relationship with the planet is conditioned by deep-rooted cultural frameworks and eschatologies. With an apocalypse coming, we look back guiltily at our Edens; the psychologies of transgression and redemption, sin and forgiveness, stalk our every thought.

But perhaps the boldest choice Flyn has made is to include urban sites blighted by population loss and industrial decline – and the people who live in them – among her islands of abandonment. One chapter is dedicated to Detroit, a city whose population has shrunk by some two-thirds over the last 70 years, and in which 80,000 properties are now vacant, crumbling into ruin. Why do people stay? Why have people returned to the Dead Zone around Chernobyl? Why does any living thing return to these toxic, tragic places?

“It is nothing like it used to be,” a Detroit resident tells Flyn. “But it is home.”

The review first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of New Humanist.

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