Book review: Great Soul of Siberia, by Sooyong Park
Back in 2010, I read a book so good that even while I was reading it I knew it was going to be hard to top. It was around the time I was shifting to reading primarily nonfiction, and John Vaillant’s The Tiger was influential in my making that shift. I remember staying home on a Friday night, so caught up in reading it (okay, that’s not so unusual for me), then telling anyone who would listen how incredible it was, unlike anything I’ve read before or since.
In the years since, I’ve picked it up from time to time but carefully, because I’ll start reading a section here or there and suddenly hours are gone. It’s a lose-track-of-time type of book. It’s about a tiger in the Primorye region of Siberia that goes “cannibal”: stalking and killing a poacher in his territory, which leads to more attacks on humans. A team created to protect the endangered Amur tigers of the region has to find and kill this exceptionally strangely-behaving tiger, because once he’s started killing humans and livestock, he won’t return to normal tiger ways.
Vaillant tells engrossing stories, not only of the action surrounding this tiger but of the region, the behavioral science of tigers, cultural issues, and all kinds of things you’d never expect to be included in a book about a tiger, things you never realized you desperately wanted to know. It’s all just perfect. It’s a perfect book to me. Excellent narrative nonfiction, just an excellent book in general.
That’s all to say that at one point while I was reading something about it (yes, I’m such a fan I sometimes just read about the book) I found that Vaillant had written a glowing introduction to another tiger-related book, Great Soul of Siberia.
Environmental researcher Sooyong Park undergoes months-long stakeouts, sequestered underground in a minimalist bunker with painstakingly obscured camera equipment taking in the above-ground surroundings. It’s a nice effort, but as he admits, “Compared to tigers, we don’t know the first thing about tracking research.” It’s all to observe Siberian tigers in their natural habitat, the environmentally-rich Ussuri river region along a border of China and Siberia, near Khabarovsk.
He eats only scentless foods so as not to alert the tigers to his presence, he loses muscle tone from being unable to move in the cramped hideout. In the book’s tensest passage, a tiger matriarch and her cubs catch on that all in the forest is not as it seems, and they almost crash through the bunker trying to find him, as he struggles to stay calm.
Why the underground effort? Because:
“If you want to access the intimate depths of nature, you must become a tree on a slope. If you wait patiently and are as still and quiet as a tree, nature will show its soft underbelly. What daily headaches do chipmunks and blue-and-white flycatchers deal with? How do trees and the forest change clothes with the seasons? How does the wind turn from friend to foe, and when does the fog come for a visit and how long does it stay? Only when you become a part of nature does nature reveal the answers to these personal questions.”
He writes in remarkably poetic tones, “Even the waves were quiet, as if the ocean didn’t want to be found.” It’s a translation from Korean but you would never know, it’s gorgeously written. I had vivid pictures in mind while reading, of the snowscapes and forests, the sudden bursts of action in the wilderness – he describes sights and experiences in sensationally rich detail. Maybe it’s adding to pictures I’ve always carried in my mind from The Tiger, but at the risk of sounding cliche, it felt like being there.
Park is on the trail of a tiger matriarch nicknamed Bloody Mary, so-called for the messy signature way she kills her prey. Throughout his observations, he watches her precious cubs grow up and have cubs of their own, in a cycle that covers three generations of tigers. Alongside is commentary on the changes nature faces, as tigers are forced to mate with relatives, disrupting the careful natural order that’s been established over thousands of years. Park quietly but forcefully draws attention to this; emphasizing that without tigers in the wild, we’ll have nothing. They’re affected by everything from the acorn up, and thanks to humans, everything from the acorn up is a mess.
He weaves in fascinating, scene-setting local stories and legends, interactions with the people who live alongside the wilderness. “Dunkai, a Nanai, is a hunter and an artist who draws tigers. He once told me that tigers are able to tell people apart. ‘The Nanai never shoot tigers,’ he said. ‘The same goes for the Udege. This is wise for the Nanai and Udege, because if you shoot a tiger, tigers will pursue you for as long as you live.'”
As well as his own struggles and difficulties with such an intense, exhaustive task, how it changes him and how he perceives the world around him and his own life and relationships. “Being cut off from the world gives you the space to reflect and remember, just as one notices the green of the pines only after it has grown cold.”
Be prepared to confront some of that kind of sadness. And, odd as it may sound, and keep in mind this comes from someone who recently cried watching a penguin nature documentary, you might have sadness-of-nature moments here too. That’s at the risk of revealing way too much embarrassing stuff about myself, but just a warning.
Can we take a moment to look at some of the gorgeous covers editions of this book have?
That second one, the U.K. William Collins edition, has some especially gorgeous artwork and design. But all have evocative photography; I read the ebook edition pictured at the top of the post and it was also fantastically laid out.
A must-read for lovers of nature, environment, big cats (little cats), poetic storytelling, Siberia, and the imagery of faraway, fading or at least drastically changing landscapes.
“Trying to be as quiet as the dead only made me breathe harder. Tiger and man breathed together, the the tiger above-ground and the man below, with only thirty centimeters between them. We sat on a snowy seaside hill underneath the moonlight listening to the waves of the East Sea.”
Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger
by Sooyong Park
published November 10, 2015 by Greystone Books