I loved this work of non-fiction by the Scottish writer Cal Flyn. Although I’m often bored by nature writing it had been so well-received that I put it on my wish list and asked for it for my birthday last year. It still took me a year to get round to it, but it was well worth reading. The book, sub-titled ‘Life in the Post-Human Landscape’ won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and was shortlisted for both the Wainwright Prize for writing on conservation and the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction in 2021.

Flyn discusses several ‘post-human’ landscapes, among them the buffer zone of the frozen conflict between Cyprus proper and the Turkish-claimed (and internationally unrecognised) ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’, the land surrounding Chernobyl, the forever blighted soil of Verdun in France following the First World War and the deserted Scotland island of Swona. She describes scenarios as different as urban US areas virtually destroyed by the impact of over-zealous industrial expansion, and the invasive plant species of Amani in Tanzania.

Flyn visited the abandoned places discussed in the book, both urban and rural, so this is a personal account as opposed to a polemic written from a garret. The writing, often in the first person present, is beautiful, conjuring for the reader a vividly evocative account of nature left to its own devices, a well-shaped mixture of subjective experience and scientific and historical evidence.

The main takeaway from the book is unexpectedly positive. Flyn is hopeful about regeneration, telling of the return of wolves and bears to the woods around Chernobyl in Ukraine, and the flourishing herds of feral cows on the deserted Scottish Orkney island of Swona, which demonstrate a fascinating social hierarchy. I found the writing on animals more engaging than Flyn’s deep dives into plant species, but the book is never dull, and never spends too long discussing one place or topic.

Despite the positivity about environmental recovery, there is recognition that the current rate of human-inspired degradation continues to outpace it. But this is overall a hopeful book – the natural environment will no doubt thrive without us.

“When he drops me on the island, Hamish the boatman has a last piece of advice: ‘Stay in the house at night,’ he says, ‘and lock the door behind you’.

‘Oh?’ I say, taken aback.

‘Don’t camp outdoors,’ he repeats, ‘or the cows will trample you. Make sure you sleep in the house. See you tomorrow.’ Then he’s gone, and I’m left alone on my desert island. Just me, and the birds, and these trampling cattle. I turn to face it: green and tumbledown and wind-battered, and feel for the first time a shiver of unease.

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