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Interview with Cal Flyn

Interview by: Profile Editorial Team, 11/07/2022

In ‘Islands of Abandonment’ Cal Flyn travels to some of the most desolate – and in some cases dangerous - locations on Earth, to discover what happens to a place which was once occupied by man. The book is at once optimistic and alarming – we hear about some of the terrible wastelands we have created, places where even the hardiest creatures fail to survive, but also about vast Edens of biodiversity created simply by the absence of humans. At a time when climate change and ecological disaster are ever-present in our minds, ‘Islands’ presents an alternative narrative. It’s a meticulously-researched and thought-provoking book.

Cal, thanks for joining us. I read ‘Islands’ straight after George Monbiot’s Regenesis, which also makes an impassioned plea for rewilding, and the idea of – I dunno, maybe trying not to destroy our planet - seems to be entering mainstream thought, largely thanks to writers. Is there a case for sacking all the politicians and selecting a few authors to run things? Just for a century or two, see how it goes?

Cal: Ha, I suppose so, although I have to say I’m not sure how effective I would be as a politician. There’s a big difference in the solo vision, as I or George Monbiot present in our books, versus the choral statements of an administration. When one writes a book, one need not be too pragmatic; you state how the world appears to you as clearly as you can. One might argue a case, marshal facts to question perceived wisdom, offer thought experiments—all in the interests of convincing a reader to accept at least a part of your worldview. You can sculpt the text until you feel it to be just right.

But even the most convincing and visionary of politicians must accept compromise; their own priorities will never map 1:1 with the greater movement. So it’s necessarily a constant process of negotiation, jostling, horse trading. I don’t know how good writers are at doing the same. I feel it might be in our nature to be contrary!

Saying that, George is a very visible activist and often his writing serves as an effective and emotive rallying call. He has specific suggestions as to policy. I see him as already serving a significant role in politics. Myself? I fear I am too circumspect, too doubtful, too concerned with the theoretical, the philosophical, the aesthetics of it all to be of much use in government. I’m interested in ideas, I guess, and in how ideas, applied by politicians or conservationists or other actors in the past, have changed the world. I’m less certain about how the consequences of new ideas will unfurl, and as a result I am reluctant to elect myself the one to take control.

 

You make the case for humans to stop interfering in nature, to pull back from our instinct to manage. Do you feel we’ll ever achieve this? What might Britain, for example, look like if the rewilding movement really took off? Especially if we combined it with George Monbiot’s plans for agriculture using up far less land?

Cal: It’s actually quite difficult to comment on this idea because the continuum of what is considered ‘rewilding’ is so all-encompassing. Most projects are concerned with, at some level, restoring the function of natural processes. But what those natural processes might look like is up for debate, and some rewilding projects are more interventionist in their activities than others. 

By some visions we might end up with the country divided into a series of enclosed wildlife parks, designed to contain apex predators. By others we are merely looking at the reclamation of so many hectares of pasture land by natural regrowth, or the gradual reflooding of wetlands. So the answer, I would say, is unclear. 

What I would say is that I’m naturally hesitant of rewilding schemes that involve us taking just as much control over the future of an area of land. The key issue, to my eyes, is: if we set objectives for a piece of land—even if that is an attempt to maximise carbon sequestration, say, or biodiversity, or the populations of specific species, is this not just another kind of farming, under a different brand? 

So often the question is ‘what should we do?’ and I guess I am more interested in the question ‘what do we allow to happen?’. I don’t know the answer though. I guess this is why I don’t go into politics.

 

Are we capable of letting nature run its course, do you think? Or are we destined to try and control – well, everything? 

Cal: We want control. That’s in our nature as a species. But I think there is a balance that can be struck, if we understand the value of it, of living alongside uncontrolled regions, ecosystems, animals. Uncontrolled or uncontrollable forces. I think we need to understand that we benefit from that loss of control, although it brings uncertainty and some risks of its own.

So often the question is ‘what should we do?’ and I guess I am more interested in the question ‘what do we allow to happen?’

What’s the gestation period for a book like this? From first having the idea, to pitching it to a publisher, finding and travelling to these locations, through all the various stages which lead to something in the bookshops – could you walk us through a rough timeline? It seems like an epic process

Cal: Looking back at my correspondence, I see I first wrote an outline of the idea in an email to my agent, Sophie Lambert, in May 2017. That was just a few paragraphs, really, but the title was there and the idea of looking for beauty in post-industrial and other ‘post-human’ places. She was enthusiastic, and I really trust her judgement, so I began to work on it in a more focused way. I went on my first research trip in November that year, and sold the book proposal in July the following year (2018). I had 18 months to finish the first draft, bringing me to spring 2020, and the book came out a year later, in January 2021.

Those 18 months between selling the proposal and hand-in were quite intense, because I had to do so much travel. It worked out at roughly a trip a month for a year, then six more months at my desk to finish the manuscript. 

 

I’m interested in what makes Cal Flyn tick. Have you always been a wanderer? What sparked your interest in such extreme places and in the natural world?

Cal: It’s a simple answer but: I guess I’m just always looking to feel things, and I think that this feeling lies at the heart of good writing. At least, the form of writing that I do. I’ve always been interested in the non-human, whether that be animal life, or landscapes, or the numinous, and so I suppose I’m always looking for places that embody a greater issue or summon up a sense of something beyond ourselves, some other presence, some other agenda, whatever that means.

Visiting the places in Islands of Abandonment was often very powerfully emotive—frightening, or unnerving, or unexpectedly joyful—and I think I enjoyed the uncertainty of going to them, not knowing exactly what I would find there, or whether I might be welcome, or whether i might be able to access them at all. 

 

Of the places you visited for this book – which ones haunt your dreams?

Cal: Perhaps Swona—my night in the derelict house on the abandoned island, where I heard unknown creatures moving in the attic. That’s where I spent 24 hours completely alone, and it affected me much more than I thought it would. I believed I was used to solitude, but it turned out that the types of ‘solitude’ I had experienced before where nothing like true solitude, when there are no other people present whatsoever; I suppose I’d only ever really spent a few hours without at least seeing another human before. On Swona, my phone ran out of battery quickly, and by nightfall I felt myself unravelling. There were some footprints inside one of the empty houses, and I didn’t know how old they were. I heard noises. I thought I saw movements through windows. I became so fearful I couldn’t eat or drink or sleep. Ultimately I came to realise I really was alone, but my brain insisted on inventing other people in the edges of my vision.

It was strange, because I really believed myself to be safe there. Rationally, I mean. Compared to other sites I visited, like burnt out warehouses and ruined factories in urban areas, which were often structurally unstable and full of, e.g., used syringes, I was significantly safer. But my brain was unable to cope with the situation and I felt far more fearful on the lonely island.

 

Although the book is about deserted places you met many interesting people along the way. I was particularly struck by Martin Kimweri, faithfully tending an abandoned research station in Tanzania, keeping the place going for years, decades, maintaining the premises, looking after generations of lab mice who will never (thankfully) feature in any experiment. It seemed a singular experience – and you tell many, equally unique, tales. The people you met – they seem a very diverse group, but were there factors they had in common, too? I suppose I’m wondering whether there’s a psychological equivalent of the ecological niches you describe.

Cal: That’s an interesting way of looking at it. I’m not sure. I think actually their decisions to stay in these places and make the best of it actually speaks to something more universal—our ability to adapt, and the incredible psychological bond we form with any place we call ‘home’. For example: Ivan Ivanovich, who I met in a small village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, had returned to his small farm with his young family only a year after the nuclear disaster. Their sense—as with a number of the other ‘samosely’ who returned unofficially to the zone—was that this was home, whatever had happened to it, and that they would rather be in this familiar place than face an uncertain future in a Kiev tower block. You hear of similarly extreme examples—those who refused to leave Centralia, Pennsylvania, though the coal seam under the town was burning away under their feet for years, or the residents of Wittenoom, Western Australia, who remain in their remote homes despite the risks of mesothelioma from the nearby asbestos mine tailings. 

Even if our situation changes for the worse, there is a strong psychological urge to stay—to find the positives of the situation, to find a role for oneself amid the ruins. And those who do leave often grieve for the lost community or culture of the place. In Australia, during the research of my first book, I visited a town called Yallourn—or rather, what was once the site of it. It was a former mining company town that was ultimately swallowed by the open cut mine itself. Former residents have formed online communities, hold regular reunions, and one of them created an incredible 3D virtual reconstruction of the town as it was so that they might wander its streets once more. I found it very moving, how the physical element of the town had disappeared, but something else of it remained—something intangible but nevertheless powerful. It’s the same thing, I think, that drives people to hang on in so-called ‘blighted’ neighbourhoods or continue to turn up every day to maintain a colony of lab mice in the absence of the scientists who want to experiment on them. Longing is a part of it—longing for things to last, or to return to past glories—and hope as well.

 

Thank you for spending some time with us today. Where’s next? What should we keep an eye out for?

Cal: Thanks for having me! I’m working on the beginnings of a new book, although it’s still in the early stages. It’s about the concept of wilderness, and it feels to me like a sort of sister project to Islands of Abandonment, but such things tend to evolve over time, take unexpected handbrake turns, and so on—so we’ll see how it turns out!

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Posted in: non-fiction