Superlatives are in order in describing Siberia’s Lake Baikal (pronounced buy-CALL). It is the world’s oldest lake, with estimates of its age ranging from twenty to thirty million years. It is also the world’s deepest; its bottom lies more than a mile below the surface, and four miles of sediment lie below that. This enormous lake rests in an ever-widening rift between two tectonic plates, and holds one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water—almost as much as all our Great Lakes combined. A self-contained ecosystem, it is the home of species found nowhere else, including the world’s only freshwater seal, the nerpa.
Peter Matthiessen visited Lake Baikal in 1990, and his brief journal of that visit—which originally appeared in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS—forms the backbone of this handsome volume. Matthiessen’s trip allowed him to explore the lake—the fulfillment of a long-held dream—and to meet figures such as Valentin Rasputin and Semyon Ustinov who have been active in the struggle to preserve Baikal’s beauty. The lake remains the world’s cleanest—another superlative—but shortsighted agricultural and industrial ventures have already altered its fragile ecological balance.
Teamwork on an international scale is essential if Baikal is to be saved from further degradation, and here BAIKAL itself sets a fine example. Matthiessen traveled with musician Paul Winter, and four photographers, including Boyd Norton, who have contributed their work to the effort. Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko adds a foreword, and David Brower of Earth Island Institute an afterword. Excerpts from other works, old and new, augment the text. Brower has established Baikal Watch to monitor the lake’s ecosystem, and some of the proceeds from the sale of this collaborative effort will go to its support. Quoting Dostoyevsky’s dictum that “beauty will save the world,” Yevtushenko goes on to ask, “Who will save beauty?” BAIKAL is a partial answer to that question.