Setting: The Ussuri Forest, on Siberia’s Eastern coast.
Premise: Sooyong Park is a wildlife photographer who’s spent most of the last two decades filming tigers while hiding in cramped spaces. This (non-fiction) book is basically a documentary in prose form, charting three generations of the same tiger family.
Why you should read this book:
(1) For the detailed glimpse into an unusual but uber-cool profession. If you love watching nature documentaries, and you’ve wondered what it must be like to be the person behind the camera, this is the book for you. Sure, you get a bit of that at the end of most David Attenborough shows, but never with this level of detail. Some of the most fascinating parts of this book are the chapters where Park describes life in a 2x2x2 metre hole, seeing no one and going nowhere for several months at a time—eating frozen balls of rice, reading and re-reading the same tea labels for entertainment, getting some form of company from the mice who raided his food supplies, and reflecting on what matters in life and what doesn’t. And then of course there’s the absolute joy when the tigers finally appear, and Park gets to catch a few minutes of footage. And, in a particularly memorable chapter the absolute terror when the tigers get wise to his hiding place, and lay siege to the poor photographer’s bunker, even punching a paw through a wall at one point.
(2) For the beautiful descriptions of the Ussuri forests and its non-human inhabitants. As you’d expect, this book has plenty of wonderful, intimate descriptions of tigers relaxing or playing with their cubs when they think no one is watching, as well as the occasional vignette featuring the forests’ smaller denizens, such as owls and wild cats. But, since he’s been studying tigers for such a long time, Park doesn’t really need to see tigers to know what they’re up to. So there are also a few incredible scenes where, based on a few pawprints and treetrunk scratches, Park conjures detailed reconstructions of events in the tigers’ lives. And all of this written in a very clear, unpretentious style, which makes things very easy to visualise. In fact, when I think back on the book’s best passages, the images are so vivid that I have to remind myself that I didn’t actually see any of it–just read a bunch of words on some paper.
(3) For the tiger knowledge. Like all good documentaries, The Great Soul of Siberia is also packed with interesting facts about its subject, usually accompanied by Park’s own photos and illustrations. You learn how tigers hunt, and how they eat–how they make a deer last two or three days. You learn about the Night of the Beasts. You learn the different ways a tiger can sit or lie down, and you learn how they raise their cubs. I’m far from an expert, but the book seems to be a comprehensive introduction to tiger behaviour and biology.
If all this sounds great, I feel like I should warn more sensitive readers that Park does not shy away from describing a number of tragic incidents, often involving the death of one or more tigers, as well as the grimmer aspects of the tigers’ lives. Tigers are, of course, endangered animals, threatened by habitat loss and general human jerkery, so it would have been odd if Park’s account had painted too rosy a picture of the goings-on at the Ussuri Forest.
Still, this remains one of the best nature books I’ve ever read, with a high ratio of beautiful moments and ‘whoa, cool!’ moments. I highly, highly, highly recommend it.