Some thoughts on Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment and the pastoral genre
Once more, I have Twitter to thank for the recommendation to read Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment. Life in the Post-Human Landscape (2021) (@wolfseule this time)! I devoured it last summer and it hasn’t left my mind since. In this book, Flyn not only reports her encounters with abandoned spaces and people (human and nonhuman), she does so in a way that confronts the still prevailing stereotypes of human-nature-relationships head on. This is not a book about saving the world, but about letting it be.
Places like Bikini Atoll and Chernobyl and the Lothian bings show us that the absence of man is often all the stimulus required to start the resurrection. Time is, after all, the great healer. The question is: how long does it need? Then: how long have we got?Cal Flyn. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape (S.239).
Her accounts of Chernobyl and the buffer zone in Cyprus as well as the reports from the volcanic exclusion zone in Montserrat are so well written that, as @wolfseule put it, you almost become suspicious of the seductive narrative. How, you ask yourself, can someone write so beautifully about places that are wrecked beyond recognition, beyond reproach? How are you supposed to follow the narratives of redemption without feeling the utter despair of being part of the culture that destroyed the sites in the first place? Do you even still know what that means – destroyed vs. intact, beautiful vs. ruined?
No, you don’t and that makes Islands of Abandonment so intriguing. This might very well be a prime example of a third nature poetics. That is, a way of writing and story-telling that, like its ‘subject’, refuses neat categorization and, instead, reaches out in uncanny ways. Flyn’s text reflects and envisions a poetics that is neither purely textual nor material but instead connects them in a sort of post-apocalyptic poiesis. So much for my opinion of the book – of course, there are things that I will criticize (that’s my job), but this is a magnificent book and it has sucked me in like no other in the past year. Still, it left me wondering about practices of abandonment and their pastoral (latin) or idyllic (greek) qualities. If only to get a little closer to my unease regarding Flyn’s concluding optimism, I’ll attempt to unravel some of these threads here.
Apocalypse or pastoral; or does it even matter?
Despite decades of critique, it seems that “pastoral” and “apocalypse” remain the dominant modes of ecological storytelling and, possibly worse, the interpretation of environmental history. Greg Garrard summarizes the critique in Ecocriticism (2004) and identifies what they have in common: both are ways to assert human dominance over nonhuman nature by means of (narrative) pervasion. According to Garrard, the prevalent relationship in the pastoral is that of the pathetic fallacy (Garrard 2004, 36), the recognition of one’s own feelings in the ‘behavior’ of one’s environment – you know, when a character is brokenhearted and it starts raining, when trees lean toward people to console them, any reflection of human feeling in nonhuman nature. John Ruskin, the art critic who coined the term in 1856, used it to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nature poetry or linguistic imagery of nature. He is, to put it mildly, not a fan of the Romantics and their tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman nature and he does have a point. Idealizing nature, especially by means of anthropomorphizing nonhuman behavior, always runs the risk of eradicating nonhuman nature altogether. Whether that is really what happens in the pastoral, a genre that dates back to the ancient Greeks, and whether it is fair to throw out Vergil with Woodsworth (or whether they should be thrown out at all) is a debate for another time. But what strikes me is that the risk of eradicating nonhuman nature precisely by projecting humans onto it can be read as the literary equivalent of an apocalypse. After all, there is no ‘nature’ left in both cases.
Bear with me, I am aware that there is a stark difference between an idyll (and especially its 21st century incarnations – think Instagram and suburban backyards) and an apocalypse (think Mad Max), but I want to point out the structural similarities. The secularized apocalypse of the modern period, that is, the end of the world without hope for a metaphysical afterlife, is one of the major ideas to fuel the very processes that now threaten to make the apocalypse a reality (cf. Horn 2018). Yet the pastoral as an ideal is nearly as dangerous because it limits ideas of nature to a very narrow set of images. An example: while national parks act as (often no doubt necessary) refuges for vegetal and animal wildlife, they threaten to exclude humans. Mostly, you guessed it, humans that are not white, male and affluent. But it also hinders nature to do what nature does by preserving a state that a limited group of historically and culturally situated humans deem ‘pristine’. It stops being ‘nature’ right the second when you try to pin it down as such. Any concept of purity produces shadows which might subvert the whole effort. So is it all the same in the end? Does it matter whether you speak ‘of’ nature in terms of pastoral or apocalypse? Or is speaking ‘of” nature the actual problem? From the vantage point of the 21st century it becomes obvious, that the risk to confuse the two is real:
When the early European settlers of America walked out into what seemed a vast and pristine wilderness, thinly peopled, it seemed to them to be an empty place, God-willed, ready to be claimed. They cast themselves in heroic roles, struggling against a wild and untameable nature. And even today, in popular culture, a vision of the primordial wilderness – the unsullied Eden – that preceded modern America persists: a place where deer sprang nimbly through the tall grass, and darted through endless forest. But what has grown increasingly clear is that much of this ‘forest primeval’ must have been relatively recently regenerated. The Arcadian dreamscape celebrated by the colonial pioneers was, in fact, a post-apocalyptic one. (Flyn, 68)
In this passage, Flyn interweaves not only pastoral (Arcadia is the mythical site of the pastoral/idyllic) and apocalypse, but also imaginary and material landscape. In her narrative (and hers is exemplary in that respect) text and material world are closely entangled. The settlers project their idea of Arcadia onto the land they occupy while being (conveniently) ignorant of the reason why the land they “find” is so empty. This is, pastoral imagination serves the purpose of universalizing an a-historical view of the world. This is precisely what pastoral does (at least more often than not) and why ecocritics like Greg Garrard criticize it: because the pastoral is so closely connected to an idea of time-lessness as an idea of being away from history (i.e. the hustle of everyday life, which, for most of history, meant war, famine, disease). To be clear, we are still talking about a literary mode, or, genre – but it should have become clear that “genre”, here, means more than a container for certain motifs and plots. Genre is also (I’d even go so far as to say first and foremost) a set of devices which puts things in motion, or – like the pastoral – seems to have the opposite effect. For my reading that means, genre is never the result of an interpretation or a mere category for texts (i.e. this and that text “belongs” to this or that genre) but something that shifts and changes within a text and in conversations between texts. So, when I look at texts and genre, rather than organizing them by genre, I look at what genre does in or for them. And this is particularly important, when the genre comes with as much cultural, moral and historical baggage as pastoral.
So what does it do? So far I have tried to show that pastoral works almost like a time-out. The idyll provides momentary relief from the outside world – a space within which time and history do not matter. But only for a while. Virgil’s Eclogues, for example, make it very clear that resources are scarce and can only support so many shepherds who have to leave the shadows of the trees at night. What makes the pastoral potentially dangerous, then, is forgetting to leave. That is, denying the (human) history of a space and, thus, naturalizing a situation that is in itself the product of history. This is not a new insight. Far from it: Already in 1964, Americanist Leo Marx looked at the disruption of the pastoral myth of the United States, environmental historian Donald Worster has written extensively on the harmful identification of the “New World” as a paradise (for the colonizers and settlers that is…). This idea is too complex to unravel here, but note that it can be understood as a spatial realization of something that was expected after the end. And I mean THE END, that is the promised lands fell together with the kindom of the heavens promised after the apocalypse (again, only to a lucky – or pious – few…). No wonder, everyone got so excited. This kind of eschatological perspective on an actual space that was at the same time merged with ancient ideas of a-historical spaces is still at work. At the very least it is in cultural criticism, scholarship and pop culture.
Whether or not they are spatially or temporally organized – the paradise within the wasteland or the redemption after judgement day – contrasting a desirable and peaceful vision of human-nature relationships (pastoral) with one in which everything has gone awry (apocalypse) is still a go-to way to make an argument or paint a picture (figuratively as well as literally). However, I do nurture the suspicion that the main reason we (literary scholars, that is) only keep those opposites to have an excuse to present ourselves as smart enough to undermine them. But then again, they do help to sort through things and this is what Cal Flyn does in order to develop a kind of ecological reading that might translate into both ecological story-telling or writing and, possibly, action.
Writing after the End
In the manner of post-human and post-apocalyptic writing, Flyn moves well beyond lamenting the loss of a supposedly pristine nature and looks instead for “life in the ruins” (Tsing). She does so, because there is no way around the fact that humans have transformed the earth:
We have written ourselves into the DNA of this planet, laced human history into the very earth. Every environment bears a palimpsest of its past. Every woodland is a memoir made of leaves and microbes that catalogue its ‘ecological memory’. We can learn, if we want, to read it – to observe in the world around us the story of how it came to be. (Flyn, 13)
This is far from the idyllic violence she observes in the above quote on settlers confusing a post-apocalyptic landscape with Arcadia. That there is no nature (left) is the premise of Flyn’s book. At least if “nature” is identical with the idea of ‘pristine’, ‘untouched’ wilderness devoid of humans. Well, if that was ever even conceivable, it’s well beyond reach in the present. But Flyn goes further. She looks at the places which have been wrecked beyond belief. The culprit of this wreckage is with very few exceptions: human beings. Mining dumps, sites of nuclear disaster, toxic harbors, forests invaded by non-native plants and ruined cities – the places Flyn visits and so vividly describes are the opposites of the idyllic photographs in travel advertising and instagrammable encounters with beautiful nature. Yet, the two have more in common than you might think:
And, as with other forms of aestheticism, it can be taught. To come into an abandoned mine, or spoil heap or quarry or car park or oil terminal, and see it for the natural wonderland it has become is, I admit, a difficult ask. But in these environmentally straitened days, it is a taste worth cultivating. (29)
This is such a modern thing to say. I adore the sentiment personally (you should have seen me on Christmas, arguing with my grandmother about the beauty of weeds – she was not convinced!). At the same time I want to acknowledge, that not only are ruins and wrecked places already highly aestheticized (#lostplaces), the habit to cultivate this particular taste is as Romantic as it gets. As in: the Romantics (great connaisseurs of the pastoral, too, by the way) were the original ruin-appreciation club. Of course, with ‘vanitas’ and the discovery of Roman ruins (in Rome) as an inspiration and reminder of either the classics or of the fragility of life and (high) culture) the fascination with ruins reaches back further, but the Romantics really turned it into a trend.
Sure, the kind of ruination Flyn explores is different from the romantic longing for bygone times insofar as the capacity to destroy landscapes, soils and atmosphere is far greater than it was in the still mostly pre-industrialized world of the early and mid-19th century. Yet, the admiration for plants and other nonhuman life to prevail and re-colonize the residue of human civilization is closer to today’s taste for destruction.
As the Romantic period (especially in Germany) is once again used as a scapegoat for each and every esoteric failure of the present, I want to make sure that I am clear here: Re-activating Romantic sentiments and perspectives, or, as German Poet Marion Poschmann puts it “re-romanticizing” the world, is not automatically a bad thing. In fact, many ‘nature writers’ argue it is necessary and if it is, there is not much left that the human-stained environments we are left with (Poschmann’s example are street trees). Nevertheless, it makes sense to be wary of aestheticism – and Cal Flyn makes it clear in many instances that it is not the goal of her book to justify or propel the destruction of natural environments. Rather, she looks at “islands of abandonment” as “forbidden experiments […] – though conducted unwittingly, they nevertheless offer insights into processes too immoral to otherwise induce: nuclear meltdown, toxic contamination, stalemate warfare, political and social collapse (Flyn, 237-238).
In other words, the (relatively) confined spaces of these islands offer glimpses into a possible future on an even larger scale. Again, Flyn activates a genuinely modern trope: the “future as catastrophe.” Literary scholar Eva Horn has argued that this is a way for modern humans to imagine themselves in the future perfect (in German “Futur II”) in order to assess the present. By imagining stand-ins like the “last man on earth” in catastrophic or even post-apocalyptic futures, it becomes possible to connect one’s present self (and society) to a future which has to live with the consequences of present decisions. If there is anyone left, that is.
But there is almost always someone left, if not necessarily human. Island of Abandonment tells truly amazing stories of plants and microorganisms transforming toxic waste dumps to livable spaces, of forests recovering almost the minute humans leave them alone (or lets say, a minute in tree time). Flyn is smart enough to include criticism of her optimism – doesn’t she devalue the work of conservationists and the like?
To me, these narratives of redemption offer something different: they are torches burning in a darkened landscape, beacons of hope in a world that sometimes feels bereft of it. They remind us of the power inherent in the world around us. And they are studies, too, of the benefits of sometimes surrendering control. We have a tendency to roll up our sleeves, to ‘get involved’ in natural processes – often on the basis that sites have been impacted by humans in the past: that it is ‘our responsibility’ to undo the damage wreaked by our kind. But these sites remind us of the value of holding off from some of our most invasive, interventionist methods of conservation (238).
Flyns islands work similarly. However, they take up the curious spatio-temporal position of the idyll. They are at once part of the present and the future, they are part of the world and not and – like in the classical idylls – she cannot stay in them. With the notable exception of Detroit, Michigan, the places she visits are too toxic or otherwise rendered unlivable (for humans). Consequently, her optimistic perspective is a projection, too. The proposal is intriguing, if maybe suspiciously so: Let it go! Don’t roll up your sleeves and get to work – the result of human interventions speak for themselves. But what does “abandonment” mean, then, can or should we really just let go? What does that even mean?
Abandonment done right
To be honest, the idea of “letting go” freaks me out, yet, when it comes to nature, I am curiously intrigued by things running wild. Even this prompts me to formulate yet another clarification – during the pandemic, letting things run wild, is most often a convenient excuse to do nothing and avoid responsibility – this is not what I mean. And I don’t think it would make sense in terms of ecologically responsible behavior. But I agree with Flyn. If you watch what happens to, say, an abandoned lot, it is difficult not to be amazed at the speed with which it grows into a wilderness. It might not contain the plants you deem desirable, that is, it will be full of ‘weeds’, but why not?
Visiting Chernobyl, Flyn reflects on the value of abandonment. Once you look past the displaced people (and it does need some astheticizing to do so), what you see is a wildnerness like no other. James Lovelock, the earth systems scientist who coined the Gaia-hypothesis together with Lynn Margulis, apparently thinks we should cherish the fact that we have sites like this.
But Lovelock went further still: we might choose to contaminate land, thus creating exclusion zones voluntarily, as a perverse method of protection. Perhaps, he mused, ‘small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers’ (Flyn 78).
But Lovelock’s idea of intentional abandonment is ignorant of many of the effects nuclear contamination has on the environment. Flyn, on the other hand, is very aware of the fact, that what she sees is only a fraction of what goes on:
What we don’t see are the stillborn, the stunted, the mutants that have died and been eaten before they have ever been observed. And even when we can find some – the double-headed pines I come across at Yanov, their torsos twisted, and limbs braced against each other, conjoined twins at war with their siblings – those individuals don’t tell us much (80).
If not in so many words, Flyn acknowledges that abandoning is a choice, too. Not rolling up your sleeves requires a decision, too. Doing nothing and doing something, then, lie very close together. But they are not the same. There are “various flavours of abandonment” (92) to which one can become accustomed and it is this becoming accustomed to abandonment and/or surrender that might be the point. Letting go, that is, is a form of care. Knowing when you hold someone back by intervening, is an important step not only in human relationships. But this is a difficult task, because we are so used to performing control. “At what point must we learn to let go, and watch the repercussions of our past actions spin out into the void, and give the Earth its head to respond and adapt in the ways only it knows how?” (Flyn 169)
Maybe it is time to actually assume the role of “stewards of the earth” – but not in the Spaceship Earth kind of way of the late 1960s, not as a figure in control, but as someone who cares enough to let go. This sounds almost too sweet, but would you know how to clean up a toxic waste dump? Probably not, but plants do, and bacteria do and the best thing we can do is to let them. In my view, this is where it really becomes idyllic. Not because it is too good to be true (it might be), but because it imagines a human-nature-relationship that is build on coexistence and companionship rather than intervention, control and exploitation. You enjoy the fruits, the shadow of the trees, the honey and the buzzing bees, but you leave. None of this is yours. At least, this is my proposal to read this post-human narrative of redemption in a way that is sympathetic to Flyn’s approach. What I cannot to is shake off the feeling that ‘nature’ might indeed be better off without us. Not the most idyllic ending in the conventional sense, but one that takes the genre seriously.
P.s.: It was the research network “Politiken der Idylle” that got me into reading and thinking about idylls and the pastoral. I was surprised how complex and nuanced especially Virgil’s Eclogues are in terms of environmental reflexivity – so thanks for introducing me to these texts.
If you read German, you might be interested in the collection “Paradigmen des Idyllischen” that I edited together with Nils Jablonski. Do make sure to check out the cover..
Aleida Assmann: Cultural Memory and Western Civilization. Arts of Memory, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Cal Flyn. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape (S.169). HarperCollins Publishers 2021.
Eva Horn: The Future as Catastrophe: Imagining Disaster in the Modern Age (transl. by Valentine A. Pakis). New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.
Marion Poschmann: Laubwerk, Berlin: Verbrecher Verlag 2021.