Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It was 30 years ago today .....

On Sunday, May 18, 1980 I was at my parents house in Yakima, Washington.

A little before 9:00 I looked out the window and saw what appeared to be the meanest storm cloud I'd ever seen.

We soon discovered that Mount St. Helens had erupted. Within a matter of hours day turned into night as the ash cloud blotted out the sun and their yard was covered with 5 inches of volcanic dust. Thus began an event that has shaped my view of the world in a number of profound ways.

I grew up hiking in the Cascades. My dad belonged to the local hiking/climbing group, The Cascadians, and on several occasions I had accompanied them to the top of St. Helens and other mountains in the area. These experiences, to borrow a phrase from Aldo Leopold, helped me 'think like a mountain.' The mountains were not just beautiful, they were monumental representations of the majesty and permanence of nature.

There is nothing like a good eruption to underscore the power of nature. In a few minutes, the height of the mountain shrank by roughly a kilometer. The summit on which I had so proudly stood vanished into the air.

(For a longer version that YouTube won't allow to be embedded, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbgAOfv-W20)

Gone with it was a key aspect of my worldview, the sense of permanence and stability that the mountains had conveyed. After the eruption, when I stood on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, I would visualize the mountain morphing away under my feet, just like in the video (above) made from Gary Rosenquist's remarkable still photos of the eruption. My view of nature was forever transformed. The fascination with permanence and stability was now tempered with a recognition that sudden and dramatic change could occur.

The other lesson I learned concerned resilience. In the weeks that followed, I became convinced that it would take years for Yakima to return to its former condition. Every time I left the house I had to put on a mask. As you drove, the car whipped up clouds of extremely fine dust, and you lived with the fear that the car's engine would seize up (as happened to many). The fruit and vegetable crops for which the region is famous (Yakima is known as the "Fruit Bowl of the Nation") were destroyed. The personal disruption of my life was accompanied by dramatic evidence of the extent to which the eruption had devastated much of the surrounding forest. What had been verdant forest was now barren, seemingly uninhabitable, wasteland.

(Photo taken by Frank Gohlke about 10 miles northwest of Mt. St. Helens)

Much to my surprise, things returned to normal relatively quickly. While the ash lingered, traffic quickly moved if off the road and with it the fear that your car's engine would seize up. Within a year or two the crops were back, better than ever. It turns out that volcanic ash, rich in nutrients and very porous, is a great way to amend your soil.

Now, with the 30 year anniversary, the press is starting to focus on the resurrection of the area immediately surrounding the mountain. According to the Seattle Times,
The eruption of Mount St. Helens 30 years ago destroyed so much that often overlooked is what it created. Scientists are witnessing the assembly, species by species, of an entirely new ecosystem.

Details of the transformation are provided in the article Species by species, a habitat takes shape and the accompanying still photos and video. A nice retrospective is available here, including a fascinating satellite animation of the spread of the ash here (Yakima, about 50 miles east of Mt. St. Helens, was covered by 10:15, animation slide number 4).

While the return is far from complete and thirty years seems like a long time to us, it is but the blink of an eye when you think like a mountain.

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