March 2016

K M McCann

nonfiction

Great Soul of Siberia: Passion, Obsession, and One Man's Quest for the World's Most Elusive Tiger by Sooyong Park

Secluded from technology and human contact, the senses intensify. Birdcalls become distinct, one from the other, the smell of rain and snow is palpable, and the spiraled underbelly of leaves holds more glory than any work of art in the world's finest galleries. I know this from experience. Not long ago, I spent two years alone in a cabin that I built with my own hands, witness to the terrible beauty of nature. After emerging from solitude and returning to the city, a Lakota shaman told me, "The woods have not left you." It was the sort of comment you would expect from a shaman, and one that my left-brain brushed aside.

When the opportunity to review Sooyong Park's Great Soul of Siberia: Passion, Obsession, and One Man's Quest for the World's Most Elusive Tiger arose, I volunteered, thinking I could bring some of the woods back to me in a different form. Within the first few pages I knew that Park's journey was not an obsession, but a spiritual calling. Although my own time in solitude was not spent in the bitter cold of Siberia, Park's insights on change and impermanence and the rhythm of nature resonated with me. "Bones are the history of a forest and, in their own way, immortal. Just as you may be moved when you read a classic novel, I am inspired by the history of the forest I read in bones," writes Park, evidence of a man deeply connected with nature.

For over twenty years, Park has researched wild tigers throughout the Sikhote-Alin range in the provinces of the Russian Far East, battling subzero weather, living in subhuman conditions, and at times risking his life to capture photographs, record observations, and film one of the most reclusive and endangered species in the world -- the Siberian tiger. "The tiger sees you when you're traveling around on expedition research, but you see the tiger when you're hidden in one spot on stakeout research. During expeditions, I become an agent, but during stakeouts, I am one with the subject," writes Park. To observe effectively, the watcher must be present without being seen, and when his work is done, he must leave the environment in the pristine condition that he found it.

Because of the undeniable connection between environment and wildlife preservation, it comes as no surprise that human failure to respect natural surroundings is one of the primary causes for the near-extinction of the Siberian tiger. Logging, urban expansion, mining, conversion to agriculture, and other acts of modernization are responsible for the habitat loss that directly impacts the tiger. Once those illegally sourced woods are manufactured into furniture in China, most of them are exported to the United States for sale, most likely in bargain stores.

Another pervasive threat to the Amur tiger is the illegal wildlife trade. The bones and body parts of Siberian tigers are especially prized in Chinese medicine, and poachers, often with international ties, are responsible for supplying those parts to the black market. For these reasons, the urgency of Park's book, and his accompanying documentary film, cannot be overstated, although his treatment of these threats is at once subtle and without judgment. Like all things, the Siberian tiger is impermanent, and Park's narrative of the intimate life of these tigers is powerful.

To see the secret world of the Siberian tiger, Park bunkered underground in the frozen Ussuri forest, a place cut off from the comforts of modern life, where he could shadow the tiger's natural rhythm. "I thought about who and what I was enduring this loneliness for and how I would face the world if I were to bolt out of this bunker right then. I consoled myself and pulled myself together." Separated from the tigers by only conifers and tarp, Park captured the most intimate moments between mother and cubs, and witnessed some behaviors of the animal never before recorded.

The Udege people of the Ussuri forest worship tigers, especially the mighty male, Amba, translated as "the strongest one." The Udege are a branch of the Tungusic people, and are animists who believe that all things possess a spirit. It is from the Siberian Tungusic word saman, that we derive the word "shaman." Park's description of the tribe, and especially the endearment he expresses for the tiger matriarch, Bloody Mary, and her cubs, suggests that perhaps he worships tigers a little bit too. After reading his poetic depiction of the Siberian tiger, it is difficult not to be awestruck by this animal, and equally disgusted by its senseless killing and destruction by our own species.

As a reviewer it is not enough to say a book is worthwhile; instead, there must be supporting evidence, preferably direct insights derived from the text or some well-framed philosophical flourish. No such flourish is needed to set Park's book apart. His prose is simple, direct, and honest; for those reasons alone Great Soul of Siberia ranks as one of the most inspiring and potent books I've read in months. For those who long for places far from cities, where clouds cling to hilltops and man becomes one with nature (rather than its adversary), this book will not disappoint.

Great Soul of Siberia: Passion, Obsession, and One Man's Quest for the World's Most Elusive Tiger by Sooyong Park
Greystone Books
ISBN: 978-1771641135
340 pages