Learning to leave nature alone

The seductive appeal of abandoned places

January 26, 2021
Experiments in re-wilding
Experiments in re-wilding

What is the solution to the climate crisis? For nature writer and Prospect columnist Cal Flyn, it’s rewilding: humans stepping back and leaving nature to its own devices. As farming becomes more efficient, birth rates in the developed world decline and more people move from the countryside to the city (at least before Covid-19), we find ourselves “in the midst,” she writes, “of a huge, self-directed experiment in rewilding.”

In Islands of Abandonment, Flyn travels to places that have been deserted by humans—in other words, forcibly rewilded—to examine how nature is regenerating in remarkable ways. She visits the Amani nature reserve in Tanzania, where, in the early 20th century, German scientists created an “experimental arboretum” with hundreds of species of imported trees. The results were initially disastrous: these “foreign invaders” proliferated and, given free rein in what was previously a finely-tuned ecosystem, began to smother the native wildlife. Yet when the reserve was eventually abandoned by researchers, its native species slowly began to reappear and reclaim the land.

Not all abandoned places have been so lucky. In one chapter, Flyn seeks out the eerie Place à Gaz in the forests near Verdun, where, after the First World War, millions of unused shells and gas canisters were burned. The result was arsenic-riddled soil where, even today, nothing can grow.

Flyn is aware of how much damage we have done to our planet, but she remains optimistic. She provides fascinating case studies to show that even some of the most mutilated habitats can “repopulate of their own accord.” Rather than “playing at being stewards of the Earth,” she writes, we should step aside, “watch the repercussions of our past actions spin out into the void” and let the Earth “respond and adapt.”

It’s a seductive idea; whether it will happen quickly enough and on a large enough scale to turn the tide of climate change is another matter. What we can be sure of is that there is little hope unless—as this strange, compelling book makes clear—we learn to leave nature alone.

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscapeby Cal Flyn (William Collins, £16.99)