Bookshelf: Exploration Of 'God's Reservoir' Informs and Delights

February 15, 2008


Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal
By Peter Thomson
Reviewed by Krestia DeGeorge


Sometimes, being the biggest, the oldest and the deepest thing can define its fundamental nature.

A case in point: Russia's Lake Baikal. In his new book, "Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal," SEJ member Peter Thomson makes a strong case that the lake's superlative features set it apart from the rest of the world's large freshwater seas.

At 25 million years old, Baikal makes North America's Great Lakes look like what they are, in geological terms: ephemeral puddles left behind by the last ice age.

With oxygen mysteriously present more than a mile below the surface, so is animal life. That's just one of the lake's unique features. It also has one of the world's only distinct species of freshwater seal. And an endemic shrimp species linked to Baikal's legendary ability to purify itself.

In a remote region of a country that doesn't have a good reputation for ease of access to outsiders or environmental safeguards, Baikal is an environmental journalist's dream subject.

So when his marriage ends in divorce, Thomson (founding editor and producer of NPR's Living on Earth) leaves his old life behind and embarks on a meandering surface transportation-only circumnavigation of the planet, with Baikal as the centerpiece and main goal. The resulting book is a pleasure to read, thanks to Thomson's sparse, lyrical prose.

On his way east via railways, ferries, and a trans-Pacific freighter, Thomson tells of adventures through the American and Canadian West, Korea, Japan and Russian Far East that would stir the wanderlust in almost anyone. But all of these are just a warmup for the main course: Baikal.

Thomson traveled halfway around the world to see this lake and from the first glimpse – through the smudged windows of a Trans-Siberian Railway car – it doesn't disappoint. Despite pristine appearances, he soon discovers all may not be well with "God's reservoir."

One of his first visits is to a pulp mill on the shores of the lake that is discharging much more organic sulfur and organochlorines than it is permitted under Russian law. During a tour of the plant, he encounters contradictory attitudes among officials on the matter of Baikal's water quality. Later, he writes: "Somewhere deep in my brain, the voices of the two Natalias at the Baikalsk Plant resonate like a sympathetic string on a piano – There is not really any problem and we are committed to fixing it."

Despite the plant's pollution discharges, the proximity of a nearby industrial corridor and additional contaminants flushing down the Selenga River from Mongolia, Baikal appears to defy the odds and maintain its purity. That's one interpretation. Through Thomson's discussions with several scientists, an ecological portrait of the lake emerges that helps to explain pollution's effects on the lake.

The story is compelling on its own merits but Thomson's real genius is fleshing out the characters he meets on his journey. A young Japanese man in his first-ever drinking contest with legendary Russian tipplers. A Buryat woman hearing a recording of her own voice singing for the first time. A conflicted bureaucrat. A handful of tireless scientists and zealous activists. A pair of researchers he dubs Dr. Despair and Dr. Hope.

By populating "Sacred Sea" with interesting people, Thomson tells Baikal's story in a way that no collection of facts, official statements and competing claims ever could.

Krestia DeGeorge is the editor of the Anchorage Press in Alaska.


Topics on the Beat: