‘Islands of Abandonment’ is one of my favourite books of 2022. The author Cal Flyn explores a number of abandoned places around the world, including uninhabited Scottish islands, as well as landscapes left poisoned by man-made disasters such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986 and the shoreline of the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait in the United States, where the waters have been decimated by chemical waste.
In the chapter entitled, ‘The Forbidden Forest’, we travel back in time to 1916, to Verdun, ‘the very worst place in the world…an estimated 300,000 men died here, and another 450,000 were gassed or wounded, over fewer than 8 square miles. It remains the longest battle the world has ever seen.’ In 1918, the French authorities, ‘drew up a series of maps which charted the areas believed to be devastated beyond repair. In total, 120,000 hectares were classified in this way, shaded with a red pencil and declared no-go areas.’ La Place a Gaz is one such place, a forest classified as ‘Zone Rouge’. Cal Flyn describes making her way to this highly secret location and shows the long term impact of arsenic contamination on woodland and vegetation.
Over the course of 330 pages, the reader is taken around the world to 12 very different sites to find out what happens when humans leave and how, on so many occasions, nature reclaims and repairs the land. This is ultimately a book offering the reader hope and optimism amidst so much despair and suffering. ‘Islands of Abandonment’ is a beautiful, exhilarating, extraordinary book; it will stay with you, long after you finish the final chapter.