When you live in Orkney, there’s always something interesting going on in the sea. A few weeks ago, author and journalist Cal Flyn saw orcas. Recently she was greeted with another unexpected sight. “Just this weekend I was walking to see an Arctic tern colony and a group of about eight Risso’s dolphins came sailing by,” she says, her face lighting up. The experience left Cal exhilarated. “You simply can't predict when you're going to see them. They'll pop up and you get that whole sudden, dizzying sense of there being a whole other world under the waves.” Island living brings one into close proximity with wilderness, both on and off the shore. Often it yields a healthy awareness that “you’re just a footnote in another creature’s life.”
Hidden terrains. The bonds – and distances – between humans and nature. These are the themes that thread through Cal’s work. Whether she’s exploring the reintroduction of wolves across Europe, the ethics of deer culling, or ways to write about environmental apocalypse, her work combines intellectual acuity with a poet’s eye for detail. Her first book Thicker Than Water, published in 2016, examines intergenerational guilt and the bleak legacy of colonialism, through the story of a distant ancestor who emigrated from the Highlands to rural Australia. She has a preoccupation, she says, with “that sense of stepping off the map – how social and legal structures fall away and what that does to a person.”
In 2019 Cal was made a MacDowell Fellow. Earlier this year her second book, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, was published to much acclaim. “It's a book about how nature rebounds in abandoned places,” she explains. “More specifically, it's about the ecology and psychology of abandonment – how nature recovers and regenerates in the absence of people, but also how these places make us feel when we revisit them.” It’s a fascinating account of the damage that humans (and occasionally mother nature herself) can wreak, and the extraordinary ingenuity of the natural world in the face of entropy and destruction. Across the course of 12 chapters, Cal visits what she describes in the introduction as “some of the eeriest and most desolate places on Earth.” These locations include deserted Scottish islands, post-volcanic Caribbean landscapes and the Chernobyl exclusion zone. In each she discovers hints of what she terms as “the fresh dawn of a new wild,” having been surprised to find thriving wildlife, remarkable biodiversity, and the odd pocket of people who haven’t left.
Writing a book like this requires two distinct things. Firstly, the outward-looking experience of travel – of planning, exploring, making notes, and talking to people. Secondly, a period of retreat in order to condense that experience into words and make sense of it. This pendulum swing between immersion and solitude is one Cal is used to. She grew up just outside a village called Beauly in the Highlands, where she had what she calls “a pretty outdoorsy childhood.” However, when she was nine, that changed. She had orthopaedic surgery on one of her legs to respond to a congenital shortening of her left thigh. For the next three years, she was mainly on crutches and occasionally in a wheelchair. This experience left her unusually comfortable with her own company, and, as it has done for so many writers who endured childhood illnesses or periods of debilitation, left traces on her work. “I look at the way that I spent my time when I was at home, either bedbound or on the couch for days at a time, and it is very similar to my way of working now.” In fact, these days she sometimes has to push herself out of that “safe space” and venture forth into the world she wants to write about.
When she graduated from university, Cal worked as an investigative journalist at The Sunday Times. Despite enjoying the job’s methodical rigour and puzzle-solving, she found the pace of newsroom life overwhelming. After moving away to work in a husky kennel for four months in Lapland, Cal settled in Scotland and eventually Orkney, where she began to focus more on the rural architecture that defines so many people’s daily lives. Her particular preoccupation with empty spaces is explored in Islands of Abandonment. From stylised photos of crumbling mansions to the allure of uninhabited islands, we are fascinated by the landscapes and buildings that have been left behind. Why?
“I think abandoned places both attract us and repulse us in different ways. Because of that strange salience, we’re drawn towards them.” There’s a sweet spot, she says, between the recently vacated space and the ancient ruin – a middle point that “inhabits a sort of uncanny valley” where “a certain level of non-human disturbance most disturbs us.” Depending on location, this process can be quick. “If it's in the woods, and you go somewhere that's been abandoned for 10 or 15 years, it sometimes appears to have been left many, many years in the past. Trees can grow right in front of doors or windows. You might find birds nesting in fuse boxes or in sinks.” She loves the idea of nature repurposing our detritus. “To a bird, a window sill is as useful a place to nest as a cliff face might be. The fact that it's an artificial structure is irrelevant.”
One of the great gifts of Islands of Abandonment is the way in which Cal brings alive the majesty of wastelands, depicting spaces where beauty springs from desolation. She moves seamlessly from giant cattle to tiny, flickering insects, and relays her encounters with the people who’ve made the margins their home – whether that home is an abandoned mill in Paterson, New Jersey or the rickety Slab City situated in the sweltering heat of the California desert. For a book that is, in part, about the present consequences and future ravages of climate disaster, it’s a surprisingly hopeful read, too. Although she remains clear-sighted about the impact of ecological destruction (the book is meticulously researched, blending in huge amounts of science and history without ever losing its tempo), she takes her optimism where she can find it. “I think that hope is extremely important, especially for those of us who are very concerned about the environment and climate change. It is such a looming crisis, that it's very easy to slip into feeling like the end of the world is nigh and there's very little that we can do about it.” She sees hope as a motivating tool for change. “That's why this book is very much a story of redemption.”
Interview by Rosalind Jana.
Photographs by Rebecca Marr, with thanks to Stromness Books & Prints.
Islands of Abandonment is published by William Collins.