10. Savannah Morning News

Savannah Morning News, Sunday, August 12, 2007

Book review: A quest to see the world's oldest, largest lake By John Stoehr

Dreamy, melancholy and ultimately hopeful, "Sacred Sea" is a chronicle of Peter Thomson's global odyssey to experience the world's oldest and still relatively untouched lakes. Researched and written over five years by a veteran journalist and founder of National Public Radio's award-winning show, "Living on Earth," this travelogue shows the natural world of Central Asia at a crossroads.

Siberia's Lake Baikal, just north of Mongolia, is truly one of a kind. Unlike the Great Lakes of North America, which were scooped out of the earth by receding glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, Lake Baikal was formed when the earth's surface cracked more than 25 million years ago.

Then it began filling with water, and it hasn't stopped since. It is the world's oldest body of fresh water - and the biggest. It's roughly 23,000 cubic kilometers. To understand the magnitude of that number, Thomson deftly invites the reader to imagine a hole so big that it that could hold all five of the Great Lakes. Or to imagine the earth's six billion residents each drinking three liters per person per day for 3,000 years.

Lake Baikal is truly a thing of wonder.

Thomson first heard of it during his tenure with NPR, but didn't contemplate traveling there until a change in personal fortune signaled an opportunity to go. That change in personal fortune gives this chronicle, exhaustively researched and lyrically written, has the tenor of a spiritual quest.

It's also an attempt to document one of nature's last remaining sites of splendor amid the encroachment of global warming and globalization. The author weaves personal narrative with the story of the lake, the land and its hardy indigenous people, called the Buryats, to create a picture of a real-life El Dorado.

Even as Thomson illustrates what makes Baikal special, however, he can't avoid the sustained ache of imminent loss. We learn about the microscopic shrimp that purify the lake, a bizarre scale-less fish called golomyanka, which can withstand depths that would crush a human, and the lake's magical nerpa, or freshwater seal. As pollutants threaten the shrimp, the number of golomyanka shrink. As the lake warms up, seals have less to eat and don't give birth to as many pups.

Reading "Sacred Sea" requires the inner strength of a stalwart optimist, but this is a minor complaint. Thomson has a companionable style of writing (he often invites the reader to imagine life beneath the lake's surface as he does). His deep love of nature combine with a staggering amount of research to make "Sacred Sea" a fascinating read.

© 2007 SavannahNOW and the Savannah Morning News.

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