And then there is the constant, offstage presence of the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world larger than Lake Huron and the home of the most successful fishing fleet in the early Soviet Union. After a century of being diverted to water cotton crops forced to grow in the desert of central Asia, the Aral is only a third of its original size. All of its fish are dead. Sandstorms are more than five times as common, devastating the health of the people who live in the region. Two-thirds of that population suffers from chronic or fatal illness. Chasing the Sea builds to an unforgettable surreal moment near the end where Bissell wanders through sand dunes littered with the hulls of a fishing fleet, abandoned now more than eighty miles from the disappearing sea they once sailed.
Tom Bissell discusses his book at the U-M International Institute on Tuesday, January 27.
[Originally published in January, 2004.]