"Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape" by Cal Flyn

7 Sep 2021

In this extract from "Islands of Abandonment", shortlisted author for the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2021, Cal Flyn interrogates our "self-appointed role as steward of the planet".

There has been a sea change in the way we look at the ecological world around us. Consider this: back in the 17th century, the term "wasteland" was often applied not to sites of dereliction but fens, swamps and marshes. These regions were seen, essentially, as wastes of space – unkempt ground, ill-suited to agriculture, difficult going for travellers – and were targeted for "improvement", so as to turn them into productive farmland. Now, 17th-century "wastelands" are considered invaluable wetland ecosystems bustling with rare species, which also play significant roles in flood control and carbon sequestration. Millions of pounds now go into their preservation, and into the blocking up of old drainage ditches.

In densely populated, intensively managed regions like the UK and Europe, some of the only places growing truly wild and unregulated may be those that have already been used and then discarded. Contrast the dishevelled wastes of Canvey Wick – where bugs curl inside untrimmed stalks for winter, rare spiders lurk in damp heaps of fallen wood, and adders bask on pavements warmed by the sun – with a garden, primped and preened, high maintenance yet skin-deep.

What eyesore sites like the wastelands can teach us is a new, more sophisticated way of looking at the natural environment: not in terms of the picturesque, or even the care with which it has been tended, but with an eye upon its ecological virility. After learning to do so, the world looks very different. Sites "ugly" or "worthless" on first glance can transpire to be deeply ecologically significant – and their ugliness or worthlessness might very well be the quality that has kept them abandoned, saved them from redevelopment or overenthusiastic "management" – and, therefore, destruction.

Aldo Leopold said that our ability to perceive the quality in nature begins "as in art, with the pretty". After that, it expands "through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language". What he was getting at is this: knowledge deepens appreciation. Leopold saw a marsh, veiled in a thin gauze of mist, aglitter at the low light of dawn, watched cranes descend upon their feeding grounds in "clangorous descending spirals" – and saw not only this, but the history of the cranes and all their evolutionary predecessors who had spiralled down upon this wetland, and all those like it, over aeons; he held to his eyes like binoculars an understanding of how this momentary pastoral scene formed a necessary component to, or a synecdoche of, a greater, wondrous whole.

This too, is a form of beauty – a conceptual one, in the way that mathematicians might come to appreciate a particularly elegant equation, or an artist might consider an empty room lit only by a flickering light, or half-filled with crude oil, and feel staggered by its unnerving implications.

And, as with other forms of aestheticism, it can be taught. To come into an abandoned mine, or spoil heap or quarry or car park or oil terminal, and see it for the natural wonderland it has become is, I admit, a difficult ask. But in these environmentally straitened days, it is a taste worth cultivating.

As wetlands were once drained in the name of progress, similar miscalculations took place in West Lothian. The local ecologist Barbra Harvie studied the effects of ‘management’ methods employed on remnant "bings"—vast spoil heaps left as souvenirs of the oil shale industry of the 19th century; from the 1970s, efforts were made to ameliorate the appearance of some of the heaps using invasive "restoration" methods: peaks and ridges were rounded off, topsoil imported, a commercial ryegrass mix sown across their faces. This was done, she noted, for entirely aesthetic reasons – to make them look more "natural".

But these efforts failed. Nutrients from the new topsoil leached away within a few short years, and the planted species died. Without constant treatment with fertilisers, the managed bings grew bare and barren – far worse off than those left to their own devices. Species-poor, nutrient-poor – these "managed" sites offer a cautionary tale about prettification.

A similar argument might be made about the High Line of New York – a former raised railway, which grew thick with spontaneous vegetation after it fell into disuse. Now it has been transformed into a popular public space, a park only 30 feet wide but 1.5 miles in length. When I went there in person, however, I found – to my surprise – that the old, self-regulating greenery had been dug up and replaced with a maintained garden "inspired by" the original, rambunctious self-seeded community. I found a clarification on the website later: "Naturalistic plantings try to recreate the emotional experience of being in nature. While the gardens may feel natural, they are anything but. Plants that would never meet in the wild are planted together here in manufactured soil. The gardeners weed, water, prune, edit and shape. Human intervention is a constant and many conditions of the site are artificial.’"

Sites like the High Line can be valued in different ways – but, environmentally speaking, this curatorial impulse of ours – so intrinsic to the way we think about the world, so deeply ingrained in Western culture – is a damaging one. (In 1967, the historian Lynn White Jr. argued that the roots of our current ecological crisis can be traced back to the Judaeo-Christian "arrogance" towards nature. In Genesis, God awards man dominion over all nature – its birds, its fish, its cattle, "every creeping thing that creeps over the Earth." "Especially in its Western form," White added, "Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen.")

Though we enthusiastically embrace our self-appointed role as steward of the planet – pruning here, planting there, tidying mess and getting "pests" under control – we are not always successful. Gardens, parks and farmland are often ecologically dull, their continued existence precarious and dependent upon our benevolence, while hedgerows, verges and the terrain vague of cities might be vibrantly biodiverse and deeply rooted. We weed out plants well suited to the ground and conditions, and insist on propping up expensive, ill-suited, ornamental ones. Better, perhaps, to resist the impulse. Step back.

Watch Cal Flyn and the other shortlisted authors in conversation with broadcaster, journalist and member of the 2021 judging panel Fatima Manji on the hub.


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