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Award-nominated Inverness-born and Beauly writer Cal Flyn talks about her journey to some of the world's eeriest and neglected places which feature in her book Islands Of Abandonment

By Margaret Chrystall

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The latest book by Cal Flyn, the Inverness-born, Beauly-raised writer and journalist, has attracted nominations for two prestigious book awards.

Her non-fiction title, Islands of Abandonment: Life In The Post-Human Landscape, was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for writing on global conservation. It has also been longlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize which rewards excellence in non-fiction writin (shortlist announced on October 15). And now it is one of four titles shortlisted for the £25,000 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, the winner to be announced on October 26.

Cal Flyn, her book looks at nature's role. Picture: Nancy MacDonald
Cal Flyn, her book looks at nature's role. Picture: Nancy MacDonald

Cal’s book takes you on an unusual odyssey, enticing you to imagine yourself in some of the eeriest, most unique places in the world, often ugly and neglected.

"What I really wanted to do in writing the book was to tap into the mood of a place and what was so striking to me when I was visiting them.

"I wanted to tap into the atmosphere so it wasn’t just a list of facts, to make it an experience."

The way Cal writes about the locations she visited to create the book – recreating the atmosphere and often strange beauty of wastelands and ghost towns – means her questions about what happens when nature reclaims them after humans have gone, linger in your mind.

It’s hard to forget the abandoned island of Swona in the Pentland Firth or the post-nuclear disaster region of Chernobyl, or Montserrat and life with a volcano next-door or the anarchic desert world of California’s Slab City.

Cal Flyn's latest book took the Highland-raised writer to some of the world's strangest places. Picture: Rebecca Marr
Cal Flyn's latest book took the Highland-raised writer to some of the world's strangest places. Picture: Rebecca Marr

It was a visit to the Slate Islands in the Inner Hebrides to write a commissioned essay that became the seed for the book.

Cal, who now lives in Orkney, said: “I started writing about the post-industrial landscape of the Slate Islands and the aesthetics of it. It can be a blasted or blighted landscape, but somehow it can still be beautiful.

“The more I started thinking about it, the more I learned about the ecological side of things.

“I did notice the most amazing turquoise pools and the whole island was just covered in wild flowers.

“When I was there in the summer, I was wild swimming in these quarries and there were the wild flowers and brambles and it was full of tiny birds hiding in the thickets.

“And I think that was the first place I started thinking about the appeal of these weird landscapes.”

Inchkeith. Picture: Cal Flyn
Inchkeith. Picture: Cal Flyn

In the book, Cal explores many unusual locations, and as well as those already mentioned, she talks about the abandoned suburbs of Detroit and travels to unique environments in Verdun, Cyprus, Estonia, Staten Island, Tanzania and Inchkeith on the Firth of Forth.

Two places have the most lingering memories for her – Slab City in California is one, which as a reader observing Cal on her own enter a very surreal place, was worrying.

“I think it most frightened me because it was both a really thrilling place to visit, but also a very anxiety-inducing place to visit!" Cal revealed.

"Certainly as a lone woman travelling around – there were other women there – and they talked through what they did to be safe in a place like that and it was things like having a guard dog or carrying a rifle!

"But it’s funny because there is this really strong community and people are really proud of being from Slab City.

"But a lot of people are only there part-time or they come in and out with their RVs.

"When I was there, it was the worst weather – extremely hot – and for people who are there full-time, it is an intense atmosphere.

"Sometimes everyone’s happy and getting along, then sometimes I think it can really get to be a dark place.

"So that really hung with me, the anarchism of the place, and the fact it was thrilling and frightening all at once,” Cal recalled.

The other place that has left the strongest lingering memories is the Scottish island of Swona, where Cal again visited by herself. And she was the only person there.

“That was a weird time because it was a contained 24 hours, and although I knew I was safe – or very certain I was safe – it was the most frightened I had been anywhere and I think it was the extreme solitude, I think it does something odd to your brain.

“I felt I was in some sort of gothic horror.”

Cal also went to Chernobyl and what she discovers may be unexpected for a lot of us.

Cal said: "The interesting thing is that trade-off between the damage done to the wildlife and the continuing contamination and our absence and I suppose the human fear – we know about the radiation – that is what keeps us out.

"I suppose what it gives us is some sense of hope because I suppose this is one of the places in the world that we thought was most ruined. And within a few short decades – although on the scale of history this is not very long – you can actually see how places recover from what we would consider as being the very, very worst.

"It gives you a sense of hope that – in so many cases we have a sense of having done something that is completely irrevocable and maybe it is irrevocable in some senses – but that some life will be able to make things work."

Despite some of the grim experiences many of the places Cal writes about have been through and bear the scars of, she seems to find there can be hope, often nature starting to take things back after humans have gone and a kind of rewilding begins.

So did the journeys change the way Cal had thought before she had gone, I asked her.

"I think so. As with a lot of people who think a lot about the environment, I tend to swing from extreme to extreme.

"Some days it feels apocalyptic. Other days, you think ‘Well we've got to do something!’.

"I think it was a conscious choice to write a hopeful book, an optimistic book, because I think we have to find motivation somewhere.

"And I think if we all give up in trying to reduce our footprint on the earth, then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in itself.

"I also think there is an aspect – definitely– that this book has made me think a lot about handing over a certain amount of power from ourselves to nature.

"There is so much capacity for carbon-sinking, for example.

"If we allow land to naturally regenerate, it’s not all about planting trees because the trees will plant themselves, if we allow it to happen.

"I think it is also about learning to work in concert with the planet itself and it’s self-righting mechanisms, of which there are some.

"I think that [travels in the book] helped me appreciate how powerful those can be and realising that sometimes the best thing we can do is take a step back and reduce what we are doing and reduce what land we are taking up – and reduce our power over the planet."

Cal’s book, Islands of Abandonment: Life In The Post-Human Landscape, priced £16.99, is published by William Collins.

As part of NessBookFest this week she has run a creative writing workshop online for secondary pupils, as part of the festival's schools programme. And you can watch it too on the NessBookFest YouTube channel.

The Baillie Gifford prize, which rewards excellence in non-fiction writing, will announce its shortlist on October 15.

The winner of the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding will be announced on October 26.

You can hear Cal in the British Academy Book Prize edition of Radio 3's Free Thinking programme on Wednesday (October 6) at 10pm. More on Cal: calflyn.com

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