The best books on wild and abandoned island places

Who am I?

A British writer and editor who developed a love of Greece from childhood holidays and Ancient Greek classes at school, and a passion for hidden and little-known places, I felt myself called back and moved ten years ago to the Dodecanese, a remote and rugged group of islands at the southeast edge of Europe. Wandering on foot around islands whose populations emigrated in their thousands over the last hundred years leaving refuges of wild and quiet, I began to be fascinated by things left behind on the landscape and differences from one island to the next. I explored in this way for five years and wrote the stories in my third book set in Greece, Wild Abandon: A Journey to the Deserted Places of the Dodecanese.

I wrote...

Book cover of Wild Abandon: A Journey to the Deserted Places of the Dodecanese

What is my book about?

A long-term resident of Greece, Jennifer Barclay spent more than four years researching Wild Abandon, visiting islands multiple times, and hearing the stories of local people. She travels from the very west to the very east of the Dodecanese, from the very south almost to the very north, taking in some of the smallest and the biggest islands, and highlighting different stories along the way to show the complex history behind these havens of tranquillity. She discovers a villa intended for Benito Mussolini's retirement, an island that links a gramophone from St Petersburg and a portrait in the American National Gallery via a pack of cigarettes, and reflects on the days when an economy based on sponges and burnt rock supported thousands.

Wild Abandon is an elegy in praise of abandoned places and a search for lost knowledge through the wildest and most deserted locations.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape

Why did I love this book?

Abandoned places, reclaimed by the wild – Flyn’s fascinating book speaks directly to my obsession, but instead of using that framework to explore a particular place, she investigated twelve locations around the world with different histories and climates. Most aren’t literally islands but figuratively so, being separated from their surroundings by a disaster of one kind or another, and each shows a different aspect of the exciting process at work that gives hope for ecological restoration. As you’d guess from the subtitle and cover, she uncovers some bleak sites of a nuclear meltdown and toxification and war, exploring in a way that’s both scientific and yet accessible and beautifully written, showing how abandonment can increase biodiversity; that these places of abandonment are an ‘experiment in rewilding’, and there’s hope for redemption when we let nature take over again. 

By Cal Flyn,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Islands of Abandonment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A beautiful, lyrical exploration of the places where nature is flourishing in our absence

"[Flyn] captures the dread, sadness, and wonder of beholding the results of humanity's destructive impulse, and she arrives at a new appreciation of life, 'all the stranger and more valuable for its resilence.'" --The New Yorker

Some of the only truly feral cattle in the world wander a long-abandoned island off the northernmost tip of Scotland. A variety of wildlife not seen in many lifetimes has rebounded on the irradiated grounds of Chernobyl. A lush forest supports thousands of species that are extinct or endangered everywhere…

Book cover of Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm

Why did I love this book?

Isabella Tree and her husband had a farm that was failing financially, so they decided to let it revert to nature and let wildlife take over. It was controversial, especially with their neighbours. But it worked, and the abandoned land gradually became more self-sufficient as the flora and fauna were left to their own devices – becoming, in its way, an island of wild within the crowded, overworked land of southern England. The couple learned vast amounts from experts through the years about such things as the importance of natural processes of decay. Densely packed with information and statistics, it’s not a light read but hugely important, a landmark book and an inspirational one.

By Isabella Tree,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Wilding as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A poignant, practical and moving story of how to fix our broken land, this should be conservation's salvation; this should be its future; this is a new hope' - Chris Packham

In Wilding, Isabella Tree tells the story of the 'Knepp experiment', a pioneering rewilding project in West Sussex, using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife. Part gripping memoir, part fascinating account of the ecology of our countryside, Wilding is, above all, an inspiring story of hope.

Winner of the Richard Jefferies Society and White Horse Book Shop Literary Prize.

Forced to accept that intensive farming on…

Book cover of Riverwise: Meditations on Afon Teifi

Why did I love this book?

In this short and exquisitely beautiful book, the author takes us on his wanderings around a river in West Wales not far from his home: journeys in places no longer deemed important in the modern world, reclaimed by nature. They’re intimate, small, meditative walks into hidden and overgrown landscapes: an island of tangled, quiet beauty where he can contemplate his surroundings; a ruined cottage made of stone and wood that will eventually crumble back into the ground, and the objects that he finds abandoned, full of imagined meaning. Its poetic words are joyful without being strained, ‘a hymn to those liminal, fluvial places where one glimpses with astonishment the secret, unfolding moments of an enchanted universe’.

By Jack Smylie Wild,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Riverwise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Riverwise, a volume of slow river prose centred around Afon
Teifi, is a book of wanderings and wonderings, witnessings and
enchantments, rememberings and endings. Weaving memoir,
poetry and keen observation into its meandering course, it shifts
across time and space to reflect the beauty of hidden, fluvial
places, and to meditate on the strangeness of being human.
Above all, though, this book stands as a hymn to those fragments
of riparian wilderness which on our maps appear as ever-
shrinking horns of green amid a white, gridded landscape of
human dominance. Riverwise is a clarion call to learn to love…

Sea Room

By Adam Nicolson, Adam Nicolson,

Book cover of Sea Room

Why did I love this book?

There’s been a proliferation of books in the last decade about wild and abandoned Scottish islands abundant in puffins and seals, but I have an affection for this, originally published twenty years ago, as it was the first I read and nudged me towards exploring the theme at the opposite extreme edge of Europe. Nicolson actually inherited the Shiant islands in the Hebrides who had bought them, so it’s no wonder he had them to himself, but he also was inspired by that connection and made it his serious mission to explore their nature and history, and uncovered in detail the haunting past of these abandoned islands. 

By Adam Nicolson, Adam Nicolson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sea Room as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Adam Nicolson's father had answered a newspaper advertisement in the 1930s: "Uninhabited islands for sale. Outer Hebrides. 600 acres. 500 ft basaltic cliffs. Puffins and seals. Cabin. Apply Col. Kenneth Macdonald, Portree, Skye." These were the Shiants, three of the loneliest of the British Isles, set in a dangerous sea, with no more than a stone-built, rat-ridden bothy as accommodation, five miles or so off the coast of Lewis. They cost #1400 and for that he bought one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Adam Nicolson inherited the islands when he was 21 - an astonishing gift -…

Book cover of The Last Wilderness: A Journey into Silence

Why did I love this book?

There’s a deep poignancy to this book about Ansell’s wanderings in the Rough Bounds where the highlands of Scotland meet the Atlantic in a series of rugged peninsulas, a ‘place apart’ thanks to its remoteness and inaccessibility; not only because it originally inspired his love of nature and being solitary in nature, but also because he’s now losing his hearing, and with it his relationship with the joys of birdsong, which became particularly important to him when he lived alone in a cottage in mid-Wales. The Rough Bounds have been called Britain’s last great wilderness, and yet the area has a long history of settlement, and in some of his walking he explores the gradual depopulation of the Western Highlands, inhabited from ancient prehistory through generations and thriving communities until only a couple of hundred years ago. Instead of being a scientific exploration, it’s meditative and meandering; ‘sometimes a little ambiguity is a powerful thing and can inspire the imagination’; and as a happily accident-prone wanderer through lost villages, he’s a good companion with whom to explore my favourite theme.

By Neil Ansell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Last Wilderness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Neil Ansell's THE LAST WILDERNESS is a mesmerising book on nature and solitude by a writer who has spent his lifetime taking solitary ventures into the wild. For any readers of the author's previous book, DEEP COUNTRY, Robert Macfarlane's THE OLD WAYS or William Atkins THE MOOR.

'A gem of a book, an extraordinary tale. Ansell's rich prose will transport you to a real life Narnian world that C.S.Lewis would have envied. Find your deepest, most comfortable armchair and get away from it all' Countryfile

The experience of being in nature alone is here set within the context of a…

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