By Eliza Browning
Cal Flyn on the aesthetics of abandonment.
When I spoke to Cal Flyn in early February, the writer was in isolation with Covid at her home in rural Scotland, but her voice over Zoom was warm and lively. Flyn is someone who is no stranger to the challenges and opportunities of isolation– her writing often explores the liminal spaces beyond the boundaries of the known world. Her first book Thicker Than Water examines intergenerational guilt and the legacy of colonialism through the story of a distant ancestor who emigrated from the Highlands of Scotland to rural Australia. Moving from the startlingly beautiful landscape where Flyn was raised to the desolate wilderness of Australia, the book captures what she described in an interview with The Toast as ‘that sense of stepping off the map – how social and legal structures fall away and what that does to a person’. Her new book Islands of Abandonment continues her preoccupation with the borderless spaces of nationality and place. It charts a haunting journey through thirteen of the world’s abandoned places, from an isolated island off the coast of northern Scotland to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to the Korean peninsula’s narrow DMZ.
In each of the places she explored, Flyn made unexpected discoveries, encountering the forces of nature crowding in to fill the space abandoned by humans. Each abandoned place was a miniature ecosystem: feral cattle wandering Swona, an abandoned island in northern Scotland, or the lush Korean forest supporting thousands of otherwise extinct or endangered species. Despite the book’s focus on the ecological promise of natural reclamation of the abandoned landscape, Flyn didn’t always consider herself an environmental writer. ‘When people ask me about my first book I always have to preface it by saying that it’s different from this book; it’s not an environmental book, but I think there are a lot of similarities between the two,’ she tells me. Thicker than Water examined Flyn’s own national heritage and the legacy of colonial guilt. But her transition between the wild, vibrant landscapes of the Highlands and rural Australia exposed her fascination with remote places in the natural world, a theme that emerges with much more focus in Islands of Abandonment.
An investigative journalist and nature writer, Flyn got her start in journalism at Oxford, where she edited The Isis, Cherwell and The Oxford Student. After graduating, she worked as a researcher for The Week Magazine, a junior reporter and investigative reporter at The Sunday Times, and a data reporter at The Daily Telegraph. Flyn saw journalism as a natural entry point for someone with her background in writing: ‘I couldn’t see how I was going to be magically paid to write these long pieces I was desperate to write.’ Working in a newsroom also taught her a disciplined approach to research and nonfiction writing, which informed the extensive research process behind both of her books. ‘It was really an education and very hard work, intellectually challenging in a way I think is not at all that obvious from the outside,’ Flyn tells me, ‘coming up with new stories or figuring out what a news line is or drilling down through bland government statements to figure out what’s being covered up or euphemistically described.’ Admitting her natural tendency is toward more poetic language, Flyn believes this demanding research background gave her writing much more of a ‘solid skeleton’. Both her lyric style and impressive propensity for research beautifully merge in Islands of Abandonment, which has been called a blend between fiction and nonfiction. Although she expresses an interest in writing fiction, Flyn says ‘I’d like to explore that arty side more in the future, but I think that nonfiction is my mainstay at the moment.’
Growing up in the Highlands of Scotland, Flyn’s fascination with landscape emerged at an early age. ‘Growing up in the Highlands is interesting because you often have a lot of unexpected and profound moments of communion with the landscape which jump on you unexpectedly because you often find yourself alone in a large place,’ she tells me. Flyn recalls going on long horseback rides alone in the high hills where she could see for miles and miles, which prompted her to reminisce on the history of the landscape, particularly ‘melancholic folk songs about our relationship with place and the sadness of the loss of people’. Flyn observes that most Highlanders are intensely proud of their open, relatively unpopulated region, which differs from the highly developed landscape of Western Europe. ‘I’ve always been interested in that very specific feeling that landscape can evoke in you, and especially that feeling of being alone and very small within it,’ Flyn explains.
This fascination shaped the process of inspiration behind Islands of Abandonment, which was sparked by a visit Flyn took to the Slate Islands off the west coast of Argyll, Scotland. The islands’ abandoned 19th-century slate quarries were flooded with seawater, which Flyn described as coloured by the impurities in the rock: ‘In some places it’s turquoise, in others it’s quite cyan, and so it’s almost like a Pantone palette, these mines on the largest island in Easdale.’ Flyn also wrote about the doughnut-shaped quarry island of Belnahua for the magazine Avant, which inspired an interest in the aesthetics of the post-industrial landscape. She quickly realised the ecological significance of the project: ‘I’ve done quite a lot of nature writing, and this tied together some of my big interests: art, aesthetics and the environment.’ The book also merges Flyn’s fascination with human history and national boundaries explored in Thicker than Water with her love for the natural world. ‘I talk a lot about how when you’re looking for a book project something needs to click into place or ring a little bell inside of you,’ she says, ‘and I think quite early on this project did that.’
Flyn mentions being the most emotionally affected by her visit to Swona, the abandoned island off the north coast of Scotland close to her current home in the Orkney Islands. Flyn spent 24 hours alone on the abandoned island with the feral cattle, which she describes as ‘a profound experience that taught me a lot about my own cowardice, my own need for the presence of people to feel safe’. Observing that it’s quite rare to go without seeing another human being for more than a few hours, Flyn noted that being completely alone on the island, ‘even knowing I would get off 24 hours later, actually affected me a lot and shook me up, and I felt quite nauseous and frightened’. Swona, which was lightly inhabited throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, was abandoned by its last family of inhabitants in the 1970s, leaving several dilapidated houses with their possessions still intact. Former residents also left behind a herd of beef cattle, which five generations later has reverted to wild behaviour and is classified as a new breed in the World Dictionary of Livestock Breeds. Despite its relatively recent abandonment, Swona is a wild and lonely place. ‘Even if I could see someone on an opposite shore it would have made me feel safer,’ she says. But she admits, ‘the unnerving aloneness has been kind of mind-expanding even though it wasn’t particularly enjoyable at the time’.
Despite her fascination with the natural world, Flyn is specifically interested in how landscape regenerates in the absence of human presence. ‘Learning to see how one can look at the same piece of ground and understand how human presence or control can impact it in certain ways are all things I’ve been interested in for a long time,’ she says. In Islands of Abandonment, Flyn originally assumed she would be looking at the complete withdrawal of human presence. She was surprised to find that abandonment was rarely total. ‘The people who remain are from marginalised communities, people who are seeking shelter there, or people who have refused to leave because this place, even though it is derelict, might still feel like home,’ Flyn observes. One such example is Detroit’s black market of scrappers, who enter derelict houses to pick apart their interiors and sell valuable items such as stoves and aluminium siding. ‘The buildings that have been abandoned a long time are often stripped back to their bare walls and concrete struts, and that was really fascinating understanding how that works,’ says Flyn. ‘The whole thing gave me the feeling of almost a biological process– you can imagine the carcasses of things being picked over. That’s a world I didn’t really have any knowledge of before.’
Islands of Abandonment represents its ‘ecosystems’ as sites of unexpected environmental significance, where the natural world has begun to reassert its power. Such a perspective offers a more hopeful look at the future of climate change – while Flyn dwells on the impact of human destruction and cautions that exacerbating environmental problems will result in a future of abandonment, she also views these sites as spaces where nature can quickly regenerate. ‘I’m definitely not pitching myself as creating some kind of movement, but the value I think I can talk about is hoping we learn to become more comfortable with untidiness, especially in nature, because what we assume to be untidy or unattractive is terribly useful to other species but not terribly useful to us,’ Flyn says. She believes that learning to coexist with the ‘ugly’ aspects of nature is important, as well as resisting the human impulse to interfere with the cycles of the natural world. For instance, she explains that leaving abandoned farmland to regenerate natural growth can have a positive long-term impact on the environment: ‘A few decades of patience can produce amazing results, and we also see that with carbon sinking. Rather than rushing in because that makes us feel like we’re achieving something, leaving land either to become grassland or fully overgrown can often store a lot more carbon in the long run and be much better in terms of preserving a biodiverse habitat– it’s all about learning to play the long game.’
Learning how to coexist with the natural world is a growing necessity as more and more abandoned structures are taken over by wilderness. ‘I think that in the future there’s going to be a lot of abandonment all over the world for lots of different reasons,’ Flyn says. ‘Climate change is one of them; we’ve already seen in places like Siberia that living on the edge of permafrost is no longer viable because the buildings are collapsing, and we’re seeing in places like Newfoundland fishing stocks migrating to new places because of warmer waters. So we are going to see a big change in a lot of settlements because climate change means their original purposes no longer exist.’ A fall in the birth rate of wealthy and middle-income countries, and a similar trajectory in lower-income nations, means that the number of abandoned buildings will rapidly increase in the coming decades as the world’s population shrinks. Countries like Japan, Korea, Italy, and Spain, with the combination of falling birth rates and increasingly urbanised populations, are seeing entire villages or large numbers of rural buildings deserted at a rapid rate. However, Flyn sees an environmental upside to this exacerbating rate of abandonment: ‘I think we are going to see a lot of abandoned buildings in the future but also abandoned land, and abandoned farmland has huge potential for carbon sinking and forestry growth, and also for biodiversity and offering a safe haven for wildlife that’s under pressure elsewhere.’ Flyn admits that she is excited for this development because of its potential for ecological regeneration: ‘I almost don't want to draw too much attention to it because I feel like it’s a positive thing that’s happening by itself and it’s kind of great we’re not doing anything about it.’
Flyn does acknowledge that the rapid urbanisation of populations has both positive and negative impacts from an environmental perspective. ‘It’s kind of cool that there’s so much land falling into abandonment that has so much potential. But you can look at these things in multiple ways, and I agree it’s valid to be sad about losing these traditional farming communities from a social or cultural perspective,’ she says. Flyn speaks of looking at land through ‘different prisms’: its value for both human development and natural regrowth. It is this delicate balance Flyn ultimately hopes to strike in her work. By exploring the undiscovered human settlements that have been retaken by nature, Flyn aims to expose the balance between the fragile ecosystems, the way humans and the natural world ultimately depend on each other. Even in the most desolate places, Flyn still discovers signs of life – a testament to how nature will endure and evolve even as human presence withdraws from the landscape.
ELIZA BROWNING is a visiting student reading English at Lady Margaret Hall. An American, she has missed numerous Oxford buses by standing on the wrong side of the road.
Art by Izzy Fergusson