The world in motion

Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’. Photo: Mikeeconomo, Wikimedia Commons

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape

Cal Flyn, William Collins, 2021, pb, £9.99

In our era of ecological Angst, many are desperately seeking strategies to mitigate human damage, but Scottish writer Cal Flyn suggests a holistic new way of seeing these problems – one that is simultaneously haunted, and hopeful. She writes often in sorrow, and sometimes in righteous anger, but always in a spirit of humanity and realism.

She visits real and metaphorical islands from Chernobyl to Paterson, N. J., and the Caribbean to Tanzania, that have been devastated by depopulation, industry, invasive species, pollution, radiation, volcanoes, or war – to find flora and fauna rebounding in richly unexpected ways. Utilizing insights from Celtic mythology to neuroscience, and E. O. Wilson to T. S. Eliot, she marvels, looking at rare orchids blooming on a shale oil spoil heap, ‘A self-willed ecosystem is in the process of building new life…starting again from scratch, making something beautiful.’ Earth is a stupendous alembic, in which new and old ingredients are always alchemizing. As Horace noted famously, ‘You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she always comes surging back.’

It is something like a sacred trust to do what we can about climate change and pollution. If the Earth is Gaia, it may also be Medea, eventually eating its own children. But nor should we despair. Even if the Amazon has been under reckless attack, forests elsewhere are advancing. Wild horses graze former farmland, wolves pad down deserted streets, owls nest in old factories, indigenous species adapt to or even prevail against invaders, and toxic dumps can sport resilient new growths. Domestic cattle left behind soon learn to live without us, and the least promising post-industrial wastelands can be havens for species otherwise almost extinct.

There is little real ‘unsullied’ wilderness left in the world – there never was as much as we thought – but new wildernesses are always forming, if we allow them. There may even be new forms of beauty, if we look properly, in the mouldering skeletons of houses, ships’ graveyards, or monumental works of ‘land art,’ like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah. Cities like Detroit, so often seen as evidence of avoidable failure, may really be almost as organic as animals, with inherent natural spans, and whose individual buildings have a ‘domicology’ of change and decay. As Vladimir Nabokov observed in 1952, the future is ‘the obsolete in reverse.’

We have depleted and despoiled the earth, but even some of our most destructive actions may be ameliorated or self-remedying in time, especially if we can let go of outdated aesthetics, or imperious delusions of control. ‘This is a corrupted world,‘ she concludes sagaciously, ‘long fallen from a state of grace – but it is a world too that knows how to live.’

This review first appeared in Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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