Sacred Sea

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"Absoliutno blagopoluchnoe ozero Baikal!" the Russian scientist looking out over the great lake says. "Lake Baikal is Perfect!" And humans can never harm it.

For a man cut loose from his life in the U.S., Lake Baikal-Siberia's sacred inland sea-becomes a place of pilgrimage, the focal point of a 25,000-mile journey by land and sea in search of connection, permanence, restoration and hope.

Following a difficult divorce, veteran environmental journalist Peter Thomson sets off from Boston with his younger brother for one of nature's most remarkable creations, in one of the farthest corners of the planet. Lake Baikal, a gargantuan crack in the Siberian plateau, is the world's largest body of fresh water, its deepest and oldest lake, and a cauldron of evolution, home to hundreds of unique creatures, including the world's only freshwater seal. It's also among the most pristine lakes on earth, with a mythical ability to protect itself from the growing human impact-a "perfect," self-cleansing ecosystem.

A trip halfway around the world by train, cargo ship and rubber raft brings the brothers to a place of sublime beauty, deep history and immense natural power. But at Baikal they also find ominous signs that this perfect piece of nature could yet succumb to the even more powerful forces of human hubris, carelessness and ignorance. They find that despite its isolation, Baikal is connected to everything else on Earth, and that it will need the love and devotion of people around the world to protect it.

On their trek to and from Siberia the author and his brother also encounter a stream of people who are also lonely, displaced and yearning for something beyond the limits of their own lives, but many of whom are also big-hearted and deeply connected to their own communities and the world around them. What begins as a search for restoration in nature becomes as well a discovery of the restorative power of trust, faith and human connection.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Environmental journalist Thomson, founding producer and senior editor of National Public Radio's "Living on Earth," combines introspection with objective reporting in this engaging account of his six-month pilgrimage to Siberia's Lake Baikal, the deepest, oldest and supposedly purest body of fresh water on earth. Thomson includes everything from thoughts about his failed marriage and his relationship with his brother and fellow traveler James to colorful impressions of the people he meets as he documents his quest, shattering the myth of the lake's reputed capacity to cleanse itself. Researchers tell him that the air and water are full of thousands of tons of pollutants and contaminants from Baikal's paper mill and nearby farms, industry and power plants. Tiny filter-feeding shrimp do cleanse the water, but in the process they move the contaminants into the food chain and concentrate them, so the fish eaten by the people living around Lake Baikal now pose a serious health threat. Nevertheless, many Russians continue to believe that the waters of the Sacred Sea are pristine. Thomson's book is a lucid and sobering reminder of the destructive effects human activity has on the planet. Photos not seen by PW. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

When his marriage headed south, environmentalist Thomson, a senior editor of NPR's Living on Earth, headed north to Russia's Lake Baikal-the largest freshwater lake on Earth-a place of extreme beauty, unexplored marine wonders, and a unique "self-cleansing" ecosystem. More travel journal and personal exploration than hard scientific text, Thomson's account nevertheless presents his findings and his journey in a way that keeps both lay reader and scientist interested and entertained. Exploring the big picture of Baikal's impact on the world (it holds one-fifth of the world's liquid fresh water) and on the people who live along its shores, Thomson also permitted himself during the journey to explore the effects of his own life on those immediately around him and on those he met during his travels. Recommended for public libraries and undergraduate institutions with environmental history disciplines.
—Susan Brazer

Kirkus Reviews
Dreamy, melancholy but ultimately hopeful account of veteran environmental journalist Thomson's odyssey to an ancient, still relatively untouched lake at the cultural crossroads of Asia. Just north of Mongolia, Siberia's Lake Baikal is truly one of a kind. Formed when the earth's surface cracked more than 25 million years ago, it is the world's oldest body of fresh water and the biggest (roughly 23,000 cubic kilometers). Imagine, the author suggests, a hole so big that it could hold all five Great Lakes and provide earth's six billion residents with three liters of water per person per day for 3,000 years. Thomson, senior editor of NPR's award-winning nature program "Living on Earth," weaves his personal narrative together with the story of the lake, the land and its hardy indigenous people, the Buryats. He depicts a real-life El Dorado, one of the last remaining sites of natural wonder on a planet homogenized by globalization and threatened by global warming. Even as Thomson illustrates what makes Baikal special-the microscopic shrimp that purify its waters; the bizarre scaleless fish called golomyanka, which can withstand depths that would crush a human; the magical nerpa, a freshwater seal-he can't avoid the portents of imminent loss. Pollutants threaten the shrimp, the number of golomyanka are shrinking and the lake is warming, which means the nerpa have less to eat and don't give birth to as many pups. Inviting readers to imagine life beneath the lake's surface, Thomson's companionable prose voices a deep love of nature and great affinity for the region's rich cultural and natural history. Exhaustively researched and lyrically written-a welcome addition to any library.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195170511
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 8/1/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Thomson is Founding Producer and Senior Editor of NPR's "Living on Earth" and recipient of 19 awards for excellence in broadcast journalism; currently freelance environmental journalist and member of Executive Committee of Society of Environmental Journalists.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Prologue: Blagopoluchnoe 3

Part 1 The Sacred Sea

1 A Flash of Blue Light 9

2 Songs and Whispers 16

3 The Earth Splits, Water Rushes In 25

4 Into the Lake-Shallow 30

5 Into the Lake-Deep 40

6 Buryatia, in Black & White and Color 54

7 On the Trail with Pod Boy and Monkey Mind 68

8 Bad Roads Are Good For Baikal 76

9 Traveling and Staying Home 85

Part 2 180&degree;

10 The Long Way Home 93

11 The Great Circle 107

12 Zigzag to Russia 118

13 Power in the East 128

14 Across the Sleeping Land 139

15 Angels and Ghosts in Irkutsk 153

Part 3 Baikal, Too, Must Work

16 One of the Best Enterprises in Russia 171

17 Righteousness, Uncertainty, and the Point of No Return 189

18 Connecting the Dots 199

19 Dr. Hope and Dr. Despair 219

20 Blind Love Is a Dangerous Thing 235

21 360&degree; 252

Epilogue: The Great Baikal Chain 263

Afterword 279

Acknowledgments 281

Illustration Credits 285

Source Notes and Further Reading 288

Index 309

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