Monday, November 26, 2007

Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal

Truly, I might not have picked up this book if I hadn't seen Peter Thomson working away on it at The Writers' Room of Boston. (Actually, what I saw was the back of Peter Thomson's head while he was working away on it.)

Truly, I might have seen the title and passed on by: Lake Baikal? Somewhere in Russia? Anything to do with balalaika?

Truly, if I hadn't read this beautifully-written and exceedingly interesting book I would have been missing out on something.

It's hard to pin down exactly what sort of a book Sacred Sea is, so if you're a reader who needs your reading matter tightly compartmentalized, you should avoid this one.

But to do so would be to miss out on a deeply engaging memoir, a highly entertaining travel book (and boys' adventure), and a remarkably acute (and non-polemic) cautionary tale about the environment.

A few years back, Peter Thomson, the editor and producer of NPR's environmental news program Living on Earth, found himself at the loose ends a lot of folks do at 40-ish.

Peter's way of tying up the loose ends was to embark on an around the world boat and train (no planes!) journey with his younger brother, a journey that would center on Siberia's Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is a natural wonder - the world's largest body of fresh water and home to a unique ecosystem that includes the nerpa (the world's only fresh water seal), and - most remarkably - a minute shrimp species (epischura baicalensis) that does double duty as an element in the food chain and as the filtration system that keeps Lake Baikal's water remarkably clean.

As with pretty much everything else on our fair planet, Lake Baikal is in some danger. There's a heavily-polluting paper mill on its shores, and as anyone who's ever been near enough to a paper mill to smell it, just keep in mind that the smelly stuff isn't just in the air: there's plenty of run-off effluent, too. (Years ago I spent a couple of days in Berlin NH which, at that time, was home to a couple of paper mills. I still remember what the river running through town looked like: the top of a lemon meringue pie.)

But many of the Baikal locals are convinced that epischura will save the day, adapting its ingenious filtration process to filter out industrial pollutants. This seems too much to ask of one little zooplankton - and it seems like wishful thinking.

To date, though, Lake Baikal has been spared most of the depredations of industrial growth, mostly because it's so remote, cold, and bleak.

Thus, it has retained much of its beauty.

Of course, in this day of interest in more exotic travel than plain old vanilla Paris-London-Rome, there's some risk that Lake Baikal will become a "destination." Today, there's some small competition between the eco-tourism forces (who attract visitors who rough it, bunk and sup with the locals, help put in trails, clean up refuse, etc.) and the more glamorous (and destructive) resort developers. Again, Baikal's remoteness may somewhat spare it from souvenir stands selling "Someone who loves me went to Lake Baikal and bought me this tee-shirt".

But will the overall forces of industrialization - and the concomitant global warming - give Lake Baikal a pass?


Peter manages to talk to a number of people on all sides of the Baikal issue - scientists, business people, environmentalists, politicos - and these conversations make for compelling reading.

So do all the sections on getting from Point A to Point B, legs of the journey largely made on cargo ships and not particularly comfortable trains. Other than the final leg of the trip - when Peter took "The Posh Way Home" on the QE2 - Peter went native in his travels, and thus left himself open to the types of encounters you won't have if you're riding the clean toilet tourist bus with the Kiwanis Club.

I know that I am not doing Sacred Sea much justice.

How about I just say that it's an elegantly written book, about universal topics of interest (including purpose in life, family, friends, the environment, politics, and the Boston Red Sox), yet very particularly about Lake Baikal (and its people and surrounds).

My one quibble with the book is a production one: the photographs, taken by Peter's brother James, are gray and a bit fuzzy, some of them hard to make out. This is too bad. Based on the well-reproduced cover photo, my guess is that the problem wasn't with the pictures themselves.)

Minor point.

Those looking for a good read (or a good gift idea) should put Sacred Sea on their list.

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