by Sherry Marr
Recently, I read a fascinating book by Scottish journalist Cal Flyn, titled Islands of Abandonment – Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape. Flyn traveled to twelve locations around the world, each embodying a different aspect of abandonment and natural reclamation after devastation. She found that in such areas, once humans withdraw, nature quietly becomes sanctuary to wild birds and creatures. It sets about busily re-greening, rebounding and flourishing in our absence. I find this very hopeful.
In this book, we will travel to some of the eeriest and most desolate places on Earth….What links these sites is their abandonment by humans: whether due to war or disaster, disease or economic decay, each location has been left to its own devices….Nature has been allowed to work unfettered – providing insight into the wisdom of an environment in flux.
“…What draws my attention is not the afterglow of pristine nature as it disappears over the horizon, but the narrow band of brightening sky that might indicate a fresh dawn of a new wild as, across the world, ever more land falls into abandonment.”
Flyn believes that humankind is in the midst of a huge self-directed experiment in rewilding, as humans draw back and nature reclaims what is hers. “The absence of people, startlingly, proves more beneficial to an environment than contamination or minefields are deleterious.” I think we can all agree with that statement.
The long shadow that we, as a species, leave upon the earth is an afterlife, of a sort….
We have written ourselves into the DNA of this planet, laced human history into the very earth. Every woodland is a memoir made of leaves and microbes that catalogue its ecological memory.
This should be a book of darkness, a litany of the worst places in the world. In fact, it is a story of redemption: how the most polluted spots on Earth – suffocated by oil spills, blasted by bombs, contaminated by nuclear fallout, or scraped clean of their natural resources – can be rehabilitated through ecological processes. How the hardiest plants find their toeholds, colonizing concrete and rubble…. How, when a place has been altered beyond recognition and all hope seems lost, it might still hold the potential for life of another kind.
Flyn relays how this was seen after the London blitz – the earth greening itself again, the ocean coming alive. During WWII, fishing in British waters stopped. In those years, wild fish stocks rebounded. When fishing resumed after the war, catches were bountiful – until they were once again depleted by over-fishing. (Sigh. We are a voracious species; our appetite is never sated.)
An abandoned Detroit neighborhood
This resilience is seen in the urban blight in Detroit, in the U.S., where, since the auto industry shut down, 39 square miles of the city became abandoned. Over ten years, the number of vacant houses and buildings has doubled.
In Detroit – where tumbledown houses are grown over by the feather-leafed ailanthus, the ‘ghetto” palm; where foxes, pheasants and opossums have set up home in the thigh-high grasses of the urban prairie; where falcons nest on the roofs of abandoned skyscrapers and beavers reclaim the river bank; where coyotes howl at night in the city’s west side – there has been a rewilding in both senses of the word.
(I think I prefer this kind of city to the normal ones.)
The author notes abandoned barren wastelands “offer a glimpse of what we might find on the other side: recuperation, reclamation. A self-willed ecosystem is in the process of building new life, of pulling itself bodily from the wreckage……in starting again from scratch, and creating something beautiful.”
During covid, we saw the skies clear in places where pollution had been greying the atmosphere for years. Wildlife were seen walking down deserted city streets. Everything in nature is designed to live and grow – it is in every being’s DNA, in every seed, every plant. In the midst of bombs, wildfires, floods, heat domes, storms, what fills me with awe is how busily, and immediately, Mother Earth gets to work trying to heal, to recover, to start greening herself again. She is doing it even now, in the midst of climate breakdown. Somewhere in Ukraine at this moment, flowers are blooming in the midst of war. Such resilience – such courage — if we only would give her half a chance, and some assistance.
The Bikini Atoll, used as a nuclear testing site in 1954, was a blast so horrifying it led to a global ban on atmospheric testing. Scientists, when they visited the area in 2008, were amazed to find a thriving underwater ecosystem had formed in the blast crater, “a whirl of kaleidoscopic life,” though aboveground remained a wasteland. In 2017, even more life was found – hundreds of schools of fish, abundant sharks, spectacular gigantic coral displays, due to lack of human disturbance.
Again – this latency of life. It drifts around us all the time, invisible, like an ether. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink. Savor it: each breath, each sip, is thick with potential. In this cup of nothing is the germ of everything.
She writes like a mystic. I love it.
The wolves of Chernobyl
(Image credit: Byshnev/iStock/Getty Images)
When the Chernobyl meltdown occurred in 1986, I remember sitting on my couch watching the news, worrying that a chain reaction might occur along the network of reactors. (I was amazed, on a trip to California in those years, how many facilities there were. It seemed every time we pulled off the highway to rest, we found ourselves beside one.) I was interested to see what this author discovered when she visited the site. I had heard it had become a wildlife sanctuary – the animals gathering there in safety because there were no, or only a few, humans.
It is considered the most radioactive place on earth. However, Flyn says, “The Dead Zone is not dead at all.” It was devastated during the event. But, a few seasons later, re-growth began in earnest. The abandoned villages and forests became a sanctuary for all manner of wild animals. Animal populations doubled in ten years. (I checked the status today. Russian troops are entering the area from Belarus. I imagine the animals will be moving on, as all wild creatures are forced to do, when humans move through. The terror and suffering of animals, both wild and domestic, in war is painful to think about.)
While radiation has declined, the plants have become radioactive and this is making its way up the food chain. Abnormalities are found in birds and animals.
Chernobyl had become Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding, Flyn observes – a wildlife sanctuary where 70% of the zone is now forest. We shall see what happens now that humans are again moving through this area.
Paterson, New Jersey, USA, was America’s first planned industrial city, noted as the birthplace of American manufacturing. It boasted 350 mills employing 20,000 workers, and was a cotton town and then the locomotive capital of the world. It also produced, at different times, pistols, hemp and silk. Its last hurrah was converting its mills to looms and dye houses. In 1945, waterways went dry, factories closed and were overgrown. Now a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Unemployment is double the norm. “Where better to consider the profits and the ravages of freedom,” asks Flyn, “than here: Paterson, New Jersey, ground zero of American capitalism.”
The blue-clawed crab
On the banks of Arthur Kill, Staten Island, there are signs warning people not to catch or eat the plentiful crabs. One single blue-clawed crab contains enough dioxin in its body to give a person cancer. Whoa.
“Through a process known as biomagnification,” states Flyn, “those at the top of the food chain are the worst affected.” PCB contamination is one reason whales are struggling to survive, with a reduced ability to calve. In the Arctic, Inuit whose diet relies heavily on seals, have high concentrations of PCB’s and other chemicals in their bodies. In response to the toxin-laden waters of Arthur Kill, a new type of fish, the Atlantic killifish, which is pollutant-tolerant, has evolved, in a process termed rapid evolution by scientists.
One wishes humans could evolve as rapidly in response to obvious threats. Flyn notes,
Human industry has changed, and is continuing to change the world. Even if we were all to be wiped out tomorrow – factories falling silent; generators shuddering to a halt; cargo ships drifting and colliding, sinking to the seabed, sending sediments billowing – we have set in motion evolutionary forces that will continue to act upon the genetic makeup of almost every other species alive on this Earth. They shape-shift and metamorphose, transmute and adapt, in ways that we cannot anticipate and certainly cannot control. They want to live, if they can.
The dystopian future is already here.
The natural world is already, necessarily, adapting as well as it might to climate change. A march of the world’s wildlife is underway. Two-thirds of species are extending their ranges north, or onto higher ground, as local climates shift. Ecologist Chris D. Thomas states, “Keep this going for a few centuries and we have a new biological world order.”
Faith, in the end, is what environmentalism boils down to. Faith in the possibility of change, the prospect of a better future – for green shoots from the rubble, fresh water in the desert…..Everywhere I have looked, everywhere I have been – places bent and broken, despoiled and desolate, polluted and poisoned – I have found new life springing from the wreckage of the old, life all the stranger and more valuable for its resilience.
She believes, as do I, that this is a world that knows how to live, a system programmed to mend, to heal, to green devastated landscapes. Everything in nature has one mandate: Grow! So we will end with our desperate need for hope – that humanity can evolve rapidly, like the killifish, and make the huge evolutionary leap of consciousness that is needed to slow down the runaway train of accelerated climate crisis.
Your challenge: Imagine a post-human Eden.
Have you been to an area, small or large,
after devastation and witnessed it rewilding?
Turn your imagination loose and write about
anything that sparked your Muse in this essay.
First, an excerpt from Book One of William Carlos Williams’ five-volume poem:
“Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river
animate a thousand automations. Who because they
neither know their sources nor the sills of their
disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly
for the most part,
locked and forgot in their desires-unroused.
—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!
From above, higher than the spires, higher
even than the office towers, from oozy fields
abandoned to gray beds of dead grass,
black sumac, withered weed-stalks,
mud and thickets cluttered with dead leaves-
the river comes pouring in above the city
and crashes from the edge of the gorge
in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists-
(What common language to unravel?
. . .combed into straight lines
from that rafter of a rock’s
A man like a city and a woman like a flower
—who are in love. Two women. Three women.
Innumerable women, each like a flower.
But only one man—like a city.”
There are places in you
Where thousands of bright, tiny flowers
Open each morning to the sun
In meadows as vast as the sky.
An ancient alchemy courses through your bones.
It speaks in feathers and stones and
precious metals and the footprints of mandalas
left by the stories we tell with our lives.
Until green tendrils sprout from your fingernails
And lichen swathes your eyebrows.
Until your roots spread and uncoil and
Writhe down through soil and rock.
Rise up into your magnificence and
Take your place among the constellations.
The Earth is her own medicine.
WHAT IS NATURE?
by Emma Plover
Is it that which lives at the edges of our society?
Adaptable, hidden in plain sight?
“Not subdued by the will of others”?
Self willed? Wild?
Land can re-wild itself
If left to its own devices
Clear of human interference
Living outside of this world
Has allowed me to create my own
As an artist
I bring things into creation everyday
So this was no different
It’s taken me a long time to arrive at this point,
And I am still unlearning
I am unlearning through remembering
Remembering who I am
(Re)wilding who I thought I could be.