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How nature recovers even after humans have done their worst

‘Islands of abandonment’ show how nature recovers even after humans have done their worst, says journalist Cal Flyn

A few years ago, on the recommendation of a local artist, I made a visit to Easdale, a small island off the coast of Argyll. Now a sleepy, rural destination for staycationers, it was once the epicentre of the 19th century slate quarrying industry. Together with her sisters Seil, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua, Easdale became one of “the islands that roofed the world” – as 400 men gouged at the rock with gunpowder and pickaxes, producing enough slate to fill 10 steamers a week.

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That’s long over, of course. One stormy night in 1881, a freak tide broached the sea walls and flooded the quarries. The roiling waters carried off machinery, boats and most of the pier; the workmen and their families were forced to wait out the disaster on their roofs. Soon afterwards the slate quarries closed for good.

But though the island’s history is interesting enough, the true reason that I travelled to Easdale was that I had heard that this post-industrial landscape was now a site of great natural beauty. No longer raw scars cut into the flesh of the land, the quarries take the form of deep, still, turquoise lagoons, lined by chutes of broken slate, like scree, grown over and through with brambles, hardy grasses and a riot of wildflowers – harebells, montbretia, thrift, goldenrods, spotted orchids. We swam in a small, kidney-shaped pool filled with water of aquamarine, climbed the rocky spine of the island to look out across the water, to the hollowed-out isle of Belnahua – ring-shaped with a single flooded pit at its heart like a coral atoll.

“I was seeking insight into the capacity of nature to recover from the depredations of man. And I found it.”

The strange beauty of the Slate Islands stayed with me long after I had left. It reminded me a little of the remarkable photographs of Edward Burtynsky: salt pans seen from above, like massive Pantone palettes; the concentric circles of open-cut mines. Heavy industry turned high art. As one writer once described Burtynsky’s images, they offer a “clash of ethics and aesthetics… a political tension that can be quite agitating”.

But this wasn’t quite the same thing, I reflected. Part of the appeal of Easdale was that the industry was over. The great pillage of her natural resources had ended, and what I found there instead was a scene of redemption, playing out in slow motion. Insects hummed in the weedy margins, lichen spread as a picnic blanket over loose stones, songbirds came together in chorus from the thicket.

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Though I didn’t know it then, this trip would set me on a path that would lead me to travel all over the world in search of landscapes like this: damaged, polluted, contaminated, abandoned places that had fallen out of use – only to be reclaimed by natural forces. Over the last three years I have visited many such places – exploring derelict schools and apartment blocks in Chernobyl; walking the empty and ash-flooded capital of Montserrat, Plymouth, evacuated in 1997 due to volcanic activity; and peering through razorwire into the no man’s land that divides the island of Cyprus in two.

I was seeking insight into the capacity of nature to recover from the depredations of man. And I found it. In Chernobyl, despite the impact of radiation, wildlife has rebounded in the absence of humans, including lynx, boar, deer, elk, beavers, eagle owls and plenty more. By 2010, the wolf population inside the exclusion zone had increased sevenfold; in 2014, brown bears were spotted there for the first time in a century. These animals would be considered too dangerously contaminated for human consumption, true. Still, they are not too contaminated to live. And, crucially, to reproduce.

I visited a ship graveyard in Newark Bay – an unintentional maritime museum, where relics of the industrial past rusted on the shores of Staten Island. The intertidal muck in which they rested was highly toxic – full of Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins. A single blue crab caught in Newark waters holds enough of these harmful chemicals in its body to cause a person cancer. Still, that some fish in these waters have rapidly evolved to survive – indeed, thrive – in this noxious soup offers a tantalising glimpse of the enormous potential for nature to adapt to, and overcome, the damage we have wrought upon the world.

“Huge amounts of ‘marginal’ farmland – especially in Asia, Europe and North America – are being allowed to revert to a wilder form”

Mines are dug, scraped clean of their resources, then abandoned. Factories fall silent, then derelict. So many places in the world have been chewed up and discarded, left for dead. But they are not dead. As humans draw back, nature moves in to reclaim what once was hers. Abandoned land is soon recolonised, resettled by life, and – if neglected for long enough – can become deeply ecologically significant once more.

We have seen this in the UK, such as at the former Occidental oil terminal on Canvey Island, Essex, where a complex of crumbling asphalt surfaces and rusting piers have become one of the most significant invertebrate sites in the country – nearly 2,000 species have been identified there by the charity Buglife, which successfully campaigned for the site’s protection, including shrill carder bees, bombardier beetles and rare butterflies.

The good news is that, across the world, ever more land is falling into disuse. As populations fall in developed countries, and rural populations depart for the city, huge amounts of ‘marginal’ farmland – especially in Asia, Europe and North America – are being allowed to revert to a wilder form. In the European Union alone, an area roughly the size of Italy is expected to have been abandoned between 2000 and 2030. The authors of one recent study concluded: “The enormous and growing extent of recovering ecosystems worldwide provides an unprecedented opportunity for ecological restoration efforts to help to mitigate a sixth mass extinction.”

I write about these findings in my new book and argue that we must learn to look afresh at the landscape around us: to put aside ideas of the ‘pretty’ in favour of what is, instead, most vibrantly alive. We must learn to see when ‘ugly’ or ‘degraded’ sites are, in fact, ecologically resilient, and protect them if necessary.

Fewer and fewer places in the world – if any – can lay claim to being truly ‘pristine’, untouched by humans. But landscapes need not be pristine to be valuable. Such landscapes offer us at once salutary warning, and the promise of redemption. We should celebrate them – and leave them be.

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn is out now (William Collins, £16.99)

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