I read Islands of Abandonment in hardback during one of the lockdowns last year. I was transported to wildly different newly-wild places around the world, even as I couldn’t stir much from home: a former military base on a Scottish island; an abandoned agricultural institute in the Tanzanian mountains; the drowned homes and fields of the Salton Sea in California. Flyn explores what the natural world can do when left mostly alone by humans. She focuses on places that were once hubs of human activity, where decaying buildings and landscape changes are the inheritance of the land.
The book features evocative colour photos, including a series of four Google Earth shots showing the transformation of a regular suburban home in Detroit into a ruin with trees growing through it alongside disappearing sidewalks. It made me think of the loss of people’s homes and communities, alongside the resurgence of other kinds of lives. Flyn’s descriptions are as vivid as the photos. She visits an abandoned canteen near Chernobyl: “The whole room is dominated by an enormous stained-glass scene that takes up the entire far wall: a moon rising in the west, into a sky of electric blue and crimson; and in the east, a burning sun, haloed in purple and orange and gold. Around and between, four godlike women rise, in simple robes, cups over each breast: the seasons”.
The attention and respect Flyn gives to non-human life reminds me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s transformatory book Braiding Sweetgrass. Flyn’s attempts to see the whole of the life, both non-human and human, in the places she visits echoes Robin Wall Kimmerer’s approach.
Often in these ostensibly abandoned places, some people remain. They might be caretakers, witnesses, those in search of a different way of being on earth. For example, former lab technician and current informal caretaker Martin Kimweri attends the former science facility in Tanzania, and looks after the many white and black mice whose ancestors were kept by the scientists. Flyn also comes across those who have stayed in their homes as other people left and the world changed utterly around them, as well as people who travel out into these spaces looking for something new. She is sensitive to these stories, which are necessarily those of outsiders.
As a woman who likes exploring places on her own, I appreciate Flyn’s solo venturing. Islands of Abandonment can be read as nature writing, adventurous travel, conservation literature or reflections on how cultures deal with the end of civilisations. It’s no wonder that authors including Kathleen Jamie and Adam Nicolson have praised Islands of Abandonment (the hard to classify nature of the work reminded me of both these authors). Flyn’s thoughtful responses to what and who she sees make this a thoughtful and strangely positive read.