Throughout history, rumors of the natural wonders of the world have spread far and wide. And now that our world is more connected than ever through media and the Internet, it's surprising that there are still amazing places that most people know nothing about. Lake Baikal, the focal point of Peter Thomson's Sacred Sea, is one of those areas. Thomson, a veteran environmental journalist, uses this book to tell the story of his personal journey to Lake Baikal -- the largest freshwater lake in the world filling a gigantic volcanic crater in Siberia -- and a bit of the history, culture, and science of this amazing ecosystem.
On page one, it's obvious that Thomson is excited about his subject. However, a major problem he runs into is his inability to share that with the reader. In his attempt to write about this amazing, personal experience that he has, he loses the beauty of what he's trying to describe in his own verbosity.
The best parts of the book are those where he relaxes and tells a simple, straightforward story, like his recount of meeting Sergui and Tania in the hospitable town of Barguzin. Too much of the text is overly polished and puffed, so there are lots of pretty phrases, but the subject behind the words is too raw. For example, while describing his journey through Russia, Thomson describes "the broad flood plain of the meandering Selenga,"
where "forest and field alternated haphazardly, cows munch on bronze grass and unharvested cabbages, families gathered hay with their pitchforks, their dogs chasing each other between the haystacks."
That's a nice enough description in itself, but then in the same paragraph he goes on to describe "a sharp and dissonant and mournful chorus that wafted through the van like a breeze carrying the aroma of strange and acrid spices." It's as if Thomson couldn't decide what he really should or shouldn't include, but then tried to tie everything together and make it all sound wonderful with excessive adjectives and complex sentences. This overpowers any small detail that could be endearing, and makes several of his anecdotes seem completely irrelevant (to anyone but Thomson and his traveling partners, at least).
Ultimately, what cripples the book most is the lack of purposeful structure. At times, Thomson's style is an interesting mix--two parts personal journey and one part science lesson--but overall he fails to bring the reader with him. Personal journey stories only work when the reader can make the trip with the narrator, sharing in his discoveries, but Thomson can't make that connection with his audience. Rather, he comes across as aloof and self-reflective to the point of not noticing whether anyone's listening or caring what point he's trying to make.
Even so, there are moments of real clarity of purpose. One success of the book is that it brings the mysterious Lake Baikal to life for the reader. Thomson recounts the local legend in which the Angara River (Lake Baikal's only outlet), is believed to be the lake's daughter, "fleeing her angry father for the arms of her lover," and the "huge rock near the mouth of the river" was "hurled by father Baikal toward his recalcitrant offspring, hoping to block her way as she ran off." Immediately following, Thomson describes how only a "tiny tip" of that rock can still be seen since humans dammed the runaway girl and raised the level of the lake. This story, and Thomson's ability to describe with just the right amount of detail the strange creatures that live in this mysterious place (like waxy fish that can survive at an incredibly wide range of depths and tiny zooplankton that act as a filter--just as good any as Brita--keeping lake Baikal's water the purest you can find anywhere in nature) make the reader realize what's at stake as this ecosystem is more and more threatened. I do care that the epischura baicalensis survive, damn it! (Those are the lake's microscopic shrimp, by the way.)
On its own, Lake Baikal is a fascinating subject. Its history is worth telling and hearing in any fashion. If nothing else, hopefully Thomson's book will spread the word about the lake and consequently help keep the area alive and healthy for years to come. Even though Lake Baikal is still one of the most inaccessible natural wonders of the world, in our interconnected world, people from across the globe can join in the fight to keep it safe.