The best books on wild and abandoned island places

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Cal Flyn

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

Why 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. 

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Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm

By Isabella Tree

Book cover of Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm

Why 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.

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Riverwise: Meditations on Afon Teifi

By Jack Smylie Wild

Book cover of Riverwise: Meditations on Afon Teifi

Why 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’.

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Sea Room

By Adam Nicolson

Book cover of Sea Room

Why 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. 

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The Last Wilderness: A Journey into Silence

By Neil Ansell

Book cover of The Last Wilderness: A Journey into Silence

Why 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.

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