Cal Flyn takes us to ‘some of the eeriest and most desolate places on Earth’. We encounter passenger jets rusting on the runway; a clearing in the woods so poisoned with arsenic that no trees can grow; a dwindling sea, whose deserted shoreline is littered with the bones of fish that once swam in its waters. Be it natural disaster, disease or economic deterioration, these grim realities are invariably the result of human neglect.
This is a personal narrative, a Dantesque travelogue through some of the most dispiriting landscapes imaginable. Unsurprisingly, warfare has taken its toll on nature, as highlighted by the situation in Cyprus in the aftermath of the 1974 Turkish invasion, which caused 150,000 Greek Cypriots to flee their homes. Most were unable to return to what became Turkish-controlled territory. The outcome: citrus trees died out, farms became derelict and the land repurposed as wheat fields.
Industrialisation must also bear the blame for abandonment of rural places. One of the most dramatic examples is to be found in northern Spain, in Galicia and Aragón, where hundreds of villages have been left to decay, starting in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War when thousands of villagers opted to work on building sites, restoring war-ravaged cities.
On the other hand, neglect can bring positive environmental consequences, as was the case with the 150-year-old territorial conflict between Perú and Ecuador that left large areas of land undeveloped and hence untouched by loggers and gold miners. Flyn stresses the need to avoid over-treatment, based on the assumption that we know what is best for damaged habitats. How to stop the rot? ‘We must learn restraint,’ she says, ‘to recognise when is best to give the Earth its head, as we might a horse in rough terrain.’