Review: Cal Flyn on ‘Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape’
At the start of the talk, Cal decided to take a short reading from the book itself, exploring a post-industrial city in New Jersey called ‘Patterson’. The chapter was called ‘Days of Anarchy’.
This reading truly set the tone for the style of Cal’s writing, describing the ‘dizzying’ sense of free will which often comes hand-in-hand with these abandoned locations: “Perhaps we only know who we are in a place where no-one tells us what to do”.
The emotional nature of the text was put into question, as Ella posed the personal responses she often felt whilst reading (fear, panic, confusion). Feelings of melancholy, of independence, were transformed through Cal’s experiences to the page, which made for an extremely raw and influential read.
For Cal, the experience of visiting these places was key to the text’s authenticity. Going to gothic and isolated areas, and having to grit her teeth through uncomfortable locations to produce an insightful text, made her dedication cultivate into this piece of literature. This gonzo-journalism approach to the book only made for a more gripping narrative.
Self-enclosure is something inherent of these islands that the book’s title alludes to, both in a physical and natural sense. It’s physically enclosed from the mainland and is important to the preservation of nature.
When posed with her thoughts on why they are so isolated, Cal had this to say:
“Islands are a constant in the study of ecology, and it’s become a big part of biological theory. They’re so interesting as they offer a contained environment, which can be easily modelled from a novelistic perspective. The locations in my book are all ‘islands’, depending on your frame of mind, whether that be an urban environment or farmland”.
One interesting aspect of these forgotten locations would be that Cal’s journey was not so much one of restoration than redemption. These greatly deprived locations are often met with the hopes of restoration, in order to make it aesthetically and ecologically pleasing. However, Cal explained that one of the major issues with this philosophy would be that in restoring, one may create more harm than good.
‘Copperopolis’ in Wales, for example, had become a wasteland of heavy metals, and in an attempt to restore life to the locations saw it’s raw, untouched landscape converted into cycle lanes and the replanting of fresh flowers. However, the unique plants that had been growing there, which thrived off of the metal in the soil, were disregarded by new plants, growing as a result of fresher soil. There seems to be a constant battle between modernity and tradition in relation to the restoration of abandoned locations.
Cal dedicated a portion of her talk to answering questions from the audience:
Q: Are there places you wanted to visit, or did visit, but didn’t make the cut for the book?
A: Yes and no! Sometimes you have to draw a line, and I had to when I knew that it wasn’t necessary for my narrative. Also, the way I write is quite dense, in terms of scientific and literary research. When you start going to multiple places, from a practical point of view, the expenses can be enormous, but you might also not find enough material without hiring researchers. I often don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it – so hiring researchers isn’t ideal! I hope I get the opportunity to write about these places in the future.
Q: What was the most striking thing you saw in Chernobyl?
A: Everything in Chernobyl is quite striking and makes me feel shaky. I went to Chernobyl first, as it was the ‘poster-child’ for the phenomenon I’m researching. It is weirdly easy to get in – you can arrive and find someone to take you within 24 hours! You can stay as I did overnight, and they have a somewhat relaxed attitude to health and safety. The whole experience of being there is like being in a disaster movie. You see shopping trolleys scattered everywhere, you can walk inside abandoned shops and most buildings. It really brings the tragedy of what happened at Chernobyl to light when you’re able to see it visually.
It was an extremely interesting talk, and I’d fully recommend giving it a watch when you have the time! The full talk is available to watch on YouTube, and you can keep up to date with future events on our website or by following us on Twitter.
Cal Flyn is a journalist and award-winning author, who’s first book Thicker Than Water re-traced the journey of Cal’s distant relative as they fled for the Australian bush, and posed the question: should today’s generation claim responsibility and atone for their ancestor’s sins?
This second book, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human landscape, explores various landscapes in which humans no longer inhabit, discussing these ravaged and polluted areas of the world and how they may often offer environmental recovery.
Ella Mershon is a lecturer in Victorian literature at Newcastle University, who’s research often addresses natural elements and their influence on hope.
Thomas Moorcroft, the author of this article, is a third year English Literature and History student at Newcastle University, on placement with the NCLA.