Fifteen miles southwest of Edinburgh, a knuckled red fist rises from a soft green landscape: five peaks of rose-gold gravel stand bound together by grass and moss, like a Martian mountain range or earthworks on the grandest of scales. They are spoil heaps.
Each peak rises along a sharp ridge from the same point on the ground, fanning outward in geometric simplicity. Along these ridges, tracks once bore carriages aloft, bearing tons of steaming, shattered rock: discards from the early days of the modern oil industry.
For around six decades from the 1860s, Scotland was the world’s leading oil producer, thanks to an innovative new method of distillation which transformed oil shale into fuel. These strange peaks stand in monument to those years, when one hundred and twenty works belched and roared, wrestling six hundred thousand barrels of oil a year from the ground in what had been, shortly before, a sleepy, agricultural region. The process was costly and effortful, however. To extract the oil, the shale had to be shattered and superheated. And it produced huge quantities of waste: for every ten barrels of oil, six tons of spent shale would be produced. In all, two hundred million tons of the stuff—and it had to go somewhere. Hence these enormous slag heaps. Twenty-seven of them in all, of which nineteen survive.
But to call them slag heaps is to understate their size, their stature, their constant presence in the landscape; unnatural both in form and scale. Locally, they are called “bings”—from the Old Norse, bingr, a heap, a tip, a bin.
This particular formation, the five-pronged pyramid, is known as the Five Sisters. Each of the sisters slopes gradually to its highest point, then falls steeply away. They rise from a flat and otherwise rather unremarkable landscape—muddy fields, pylons, hay bales, cattle—to become the most significant landmarks of the region: some pyramidal or square; some organic and lumpen; others still rising raw-flanked and red to plateaus like Australia’s Uluru.For around six decades from the 1860s, Scotland was the world’s leading oil producer, thanks to an innovative new method of distillation which transformed oil shale into fuel.
Mere tips at first, they grew into heaps that shifted and reformed like dunes. Then hillocks. Then, finally, mountains made from small chips of stone—each the size of a fingernail or a coin, with the brittle texture of broken terra-cotta. These mountains grew and spread, as barrow after barrow was dumped upon the heap. They rose from the land like loaves, swallowing all they came into contact with: thatched cottages, farmyards, trees. Under the northernmost arm of the Five Sisters an entire Victorian country house—stone-built and grand, with wide bay windows and a central cupola—lies entombed beneath the shale.
Oil production continued on a massive scale here until the Middle East’s vast reserves of liquid oil came into ascendancy. In Scotland, the last shale mine closed in 1962, bringing to an end a local culture and way of life, leaving mining villages without the mines to employ them, and only the massive, brick-red bings as souvenirs. For a long time the bings were disliked: barren wastes that dominated the skyline, fit only to remind the region’s inhabitants of an industry gone bust and an environment pillaged. No one wants to be defined by their spoil heaps. But what to do about them? That wasn’t clear.
A few were leveled. A few later quarried afresh, as the red stone flakes—“blaes” as they are technically known—found a second life as a construction material. For a time blaes turned up everywhere: fashioned into pinkish building blocks, used as motorway infill, and—or a time—surfacing every all-weather pitch in Scotland, including the one at my high school. Blaes stuck in grazed knees, collected in our gym shoes, left a telltale dust across the sweaters used as goalposts—and generally formed the brick-red backdrop to our communal coming of age. But mainly the bings lay abandoned and ignored. After a while, the villages in their shadows grew used to their silent presence. To enjoy them, even.
The self-seeded ecosystems that have emerged on the bings—and on derelict sites like them—tell us a great deal about the possibilities and process of natural recovery; about nature’s resilience and capacity to recover after what would seem like a death blow.
These are stories of redemption, not restoration. These sites never again will return to the way they were. But what they do offer us is insight into the processes of reparation and adaptation, and—more valuable still—they offer us hope. They remind us that, even in the most desperate of circumstances, all is not yet lost.
And there is a great deal we can learn from them. Indeed, there has been a sea change in how post-industrial, or other “anthropogenic,” sites are perceived and valued in recent years. Some of the most exciting developments in ecology and conservation have been in the study of landscapes deeply impacted by human activity; in observing how ecosystems might expand and contract, adapt to new conditions, take a heavy blow but come up fighting on the other side.
Some of the new foci of scientific interest are sites that, on first glance, might be dismissed as drab or run down or ruinous: to appreciate their significance requires a certain retuning of the eyes and adjusting of sensibilities when we look at the world around us. It is much harder to recognize the value of lead when it sits so pale against the flash of silver or gold. But these terrains vagues, with their self-willed communities of hardy plants, may be more authentically alive, more solidly real, than many of the world’s most celebrated beauty spots—and in that way offer an attraction and a value all their own.
Some of the earliest work on how to evaluate the scrappy, self-made ecosystems that spring up in abandoned places took place in post-war Berlin where, as in London, large tracts of urban land had been left as rubble and ruin by air raids. But, unlike in London, reconstruction here was retarded by the construction of the Berlin Wall and the division of the city. Rail yards in West Berlin, for example, fell silent after East Germany rerouted trains to avoid the Allied-occupied zones.
In the Tempelhof shunting yard, with the site in stasis, nature began the reclamation. The tracks remained, but broad-boled birch muscled up between the sleepers, blocking the tracks and halting the return of the trains. A complex mosaic of grassland, shrubland, and groves of black locust trees sprung up under a rusting water tower; by 1980, the 25‑acre Natur-Park Südgelände supported 334 species of ferns and flowering plants, plus foxes, falcons, three hitherto unknown species of beetle, and a rare spider previously only found in underground caverns in the south of France.
Ingo Kowarik, a local ecologist, made a detailed study of the site and—based on his findings there and in similar abandoned sites across the city—devised a new framework through which we might begin to understand their significance. In all, he wrote, there are four different types of vegetation. First, the remnants of what we might considered “pristine” nature—ancient woodland and other undisturbed sites. These sites are very valuable, being highly diverse and densely structured. Next, cultural landscapes—hat is, where nature has been shaped and sculpted by farmers and foresters. Third, the trees and plants that have been added for ornamental reasons, an esthetic element of urban planning. Then, finally, what Kowarik memorably classifies as “nature of the fourth kind”: the spontaneous ecosystems that have grown up on wasteland, unsupported. His point is that these new feral ecosystems, in their authenticity and self-direction, are a new form of wilderness worth preserving in their own right.They remind us that, even in the most desperate of circumstances, all is not yet lost.
In Britain, a similar story unfolded in Canvey Wick, where a 230-acre patch of land was used first as a dump for sediment dredged from the shipping channels of the Thames, and later developed as an oil refinery. Huge circular pads of concrete were laid in preparation for the installation of outsized metal holding tanks, but building stalled during a crash in oil prices and the site never came to fruition. It was considered an eyesore until, in 2003, entomologists identified dozens of rare invertebrates living there, including three hundred species of moth, and insects so rare they did not have English names. Surveys later revealed the site to have more biodiversity per square foot than any other site in the UK. It was, one conservation officer extoled, “a little brownfield rainforest”—and became protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 2005.
A few months ago, I visited a comparable brownfield wonderland, closer to home: the Ardeer peninsula on Scotland’s southwest coast, once a vast complex of sand dunes and salt marsh that became a cradle of industry in the nineteenth century when Alfred Nobel constructed a dynamite works and testing ground along its remote stretch of coastline. At its height, the site employed thirteen thousand people in its laboratories and production lines, and stored nitroglycerine in thousand-gallon tanks. Buildings were built well apart, nestled behind embankments sculpted from the sand hills in case of accidents. (For there were accidents: in 1884, ten local girls filling dynamite cartridges were killed in a massive blast; “not a vestige of the hut remains,” reported the local paper. Parts of the body of one of the girls was found more than 150 yards from the scene of the explosion.)
Those huts now lie tumbledown and open to the elements, the blast walls grown over with heather. Old paint flakes onto the floor and gather in drifts with the fallen leaves. Faded signs warn: DANGER—EXPLOSIVE ATMOSPHERE.
Iain Hamlin, a local conservationist campaigning against the site’s redevelopment, led me through a gap in the fence onto the rail platform, which stood eerily amid a clearing in the trees as if awaiting the last train. The old parking lot was an open expanse quilted with soft brown moss and frothy gray and peppermint lichens, which seemed to shimmer like the surface of an impressionistic pool, whipped up in some places and lying still in others. Tussocks broke through its smooth surface, and goat willow hung heavy with tasseled catkins. Sea buckthorn had pushed up along the seams, its burnt-orange fruits now sagging unpleasantly on the branch, bleached to a sickly pallor—food for the birds.
When I scratched my heel into the spongy matter underfoot, it parted to reveal the crumbling asphalt underneath, like bone. Iain dropped to his knees to point out the pinhead tunnels of the minotaur beetle, which rolls rabbit droppings down into underground pantries, and the telltale burrows of solitary bees. Farther back, cooling ponds strewn with rusted pipes were busy with teals and moorhens. An old concrete streetlight stood incongruously in the woods beyond: some ravaged Narnia. Jays catcalled overhead.
Though profoundly altered by development, the sites at Ardeer and Canvey Wick are almost uniquely well suited to become hubs of biodiversity. Old concrete and tarmac hinder succession—keeping the ground clear of forest, which can, somewhat counterintuitively, inhibit biodiversity rather than improve it—and opens the area to the light. So too do the roving local teenagers, whom we saw setting brush fires and clambering onto the roof of the derelict power plant. The combination of so many miniature sub-habitats in close proximity is an ideal situation for many insects, which have different requirements at different stages of their life cycles. Derelict buildings—strangely beautiful in their slow decay—also offer hiding places for hibernating butterflies and moths, whose chrysalides and cocoons have been spotted in their hundreds there hanging on dank, dark walls.
Given the intensity of contemporary agriculture—here monocultural swaths can stretch away to the horizon—it is becoming increasingly well recognized that ruinous, utterly neglected sites such as these have become refugia for wildlife; indeed, according to the conservation trust Buglife, “the invertebrate rarity and diversity of some brownfield sites is only equaled by that of some ancient woodlands.” A remarkable feat, given that most brownfield sites have usually been in existence for only a few decades—then a woodland might take hundreds of years to come to full maturity and ecological complexity.
As a result of these findings, there has been a sea change in the way we look at the ecological world around us. Consider this: back in the seventeenth century, the term “wasteland” was often applied not to sites of dereliction but to fens, swamps, and marshes. These regions were seen, essentially, as wastes of space—unkempt ground, ill-suited to agriculture, difficult going for travelers—and were targeted for “improvement,” so as to turn them into productive farmland. Now, 17th-century “wastelands” are considered invaluable wetland ecosystems bustling with rare species, which also play significant roles in flood control and carbon sequestration. Millions of dollars now go into their preservation, and into the blocking up of old drainage ditches.
The lesson in this, I think, is that what feel like self-evident truths about the world around us can, in fact, be culturally specific—moral judgments we are imposing upon the world around us. If we want to do the best for the environment, what we need is a new way of seeing: a new way of looking at the land.
In densely populated, intensively managed regions like the UK and Europe, some of the only places growing truly wild and unregulated may be those which have already been used and then discarded. Contrast the disheveled wastes of Canvey Wick—here bugs curl inside untrimmed stalks for winter, rare spiders lurk in damp heaps of fallen wood, and adders bask on pavements warmed by the sun—with a garden, primped and preened, high-maintenance yet skin-deep.
What eyesore sites like the wastelands can teach us is a new, more sophisticated, way of looking at the natural environment: not in terms of the picturesque, or even the care with which it has been tended, but with an eye upon its ecological virility. After learning to do so, the world looks very different. Sites “ugly” or “worthless” on first glance can transpire to be deeply ecologically significant—and their ugliness or worthlessness might very well be the quality that has kept them abandoned, saved them from redevelopment or overenthusiastic “management”—and, therefore, destruction.
From Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn, to be published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Cal Flyn.