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Cal Flyn on the Role of Writers in the Fight Against Environmental Crisis

Posted on 30th December 2021 by Anna Orhanen

From Chernobyl to the battlefields of Verdun, Islands of Abandonment – our Non-fiction Book of the Month for January – leads the reader on an eye-opening journey through places left uninhabitable by mostly man-made disasters, whilst also exploring the ways nature is taking back control and filling the spaces humankind has deserted. In this exclusive piece, author Cal Flyn discusses the role of writers in tackling the environmental crisis and the importance of balancing the fear and hopelessness that often surround the discussion about climate change with messages of hope that will help us to keep faith in our fight against it.

When reading or writing about nature these days, one often feels the spectre of climate change in the room with you, breathing down your neck. It presents a moral quandary for the author: is it responsible to celebrate the beauties, the vibrancy, the healing power of nature, without sounding the relentless alarm? 

It is, I think, a difficult line to draw. Sound that alarm too loudly or too often, and you risk deadening your audience’s hearing. Conversely: wallow in the wonders of the world too luxuriantly and you lull the public into a false sense of security. There must be a middle ground that allows us to admire all that which is beautiful, without skipping Pollyanna-ish through the world as it burns to the ground around us.

While writing my book Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, I thought a lot about what role writers should take on in the fight against environmental crisis. Islands of Abandonment is a nonfiction book about how nature rebounds and regenerates in the absence of people; in it, I visit 13 locations around the world which have lain derelict and deserted for decades – such as the Chernobyl exclusion zone, an ash-flooded former Caribbean capital, and the no-man’s land that splits Cyprus in two – so as to study how, through natural processes, these ravaged and desolate landscapes might be rehabilitated. 

Many of the sites in my book show the perverse benefits of abandonment – having been rendered so polluted or damaged or dangerous for humans to bother with, these places were often left undisturbed for many years, which in turn allowed a myriad of species to thrive. ‘Sites “ugly” or “worthless” on first glance can transpire to be deeply ecologically significant,’ as I write in the book, ‘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.’

In some sense, when I first embarked on the project, I feared that it might be a dark or depressing journey. Instead, I found a story of redemption: even in places altered beyond all recognition by humans, they might still hold the potential for life of another kind. In a forest clearing, tainted by heavy metals, I found ‘metallophyte’ moss sucking arsenic and lead from the earth, clearing the way for other species. In the mined no-man’s-land slicing through Cyprus, I discovered raptors, reptiles, owls and rare plants all finding safe haven amid the wreckage of war. In Chernobyl, I learned that some species could weather the radioactivity better than others – and it was those that had come to the fore.

Sometimes I worried that in highlighting these stories of ecological recovery, I might be offering too much reassurance to those who tend towards inaction in the face of environmental crisis. But when I thought about it, I realised that I was greatly in need of hope. I read a great deal about climate change, but so often it leaves me panicked, even frozen with fear. What I really needed to hear was that it was not too late – all is not yet lost. That, should we give it the time and space it needs, the planet might recover its health – and all of its inhabitants, ourselves included, be offered a reprieve.

So, for me, at least, I think the fundamental challenge of environmental writing is learning to trace that careful path between hope and hopelessness, and in that way navigate the coming crisis, neither blinding ourselves to the frightening reality of climate change nor weighing ourselves down with despair.

The narratives of redemption I offer in Islands of Abandonment are, as I write in the book, ‘torches burning in a darkened landscape, beacons of hope in a world that sometimes feels bereft of it.’ I found that by studying how nature has survived and even thrived after the worst has happened, it has helped me picture a future for our planet, and in that way find faith enough to fight on in the battle against climate change. 


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