In 2005 a group of writers and scientists from Oregon and Washington gathered to spend a weekend camping near Mount St. Helens on the 25th anniversary of the volcanic eruption that rained debris on the surrounding area, destroying flora and fauna for miles around, leaving behind what looked like “a gray, lifeless landscape.” But as the essays by the participants in this pilgrimage that are collected in the new anthology In the Blast Zone (Oregon State University Press, 124 pages) detail, all was not destroyed: burrowing gophers survived under the soil, while other plants and animals took refuge in “rotten logs, snow banks, and ice-covered ponds.” Logging companies quickly moved to replant trees, but the Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument was established, allowing scientists to observe the natural recovery process that would ensue without human intervention.
While many ecologists expected plant and animal life to move in from the fringes of the blast zone, what instead happened more rapidly was the burgeoning of tiny populations that had endured the tumult. The old growth forests were gone, the logs now bobbing on the surface of nearby Spirit Lake, but those who took the care to search for it could find lots of other life forms thriving.
Although this message of rebirth and renewal is the overriding one expressed by In the Blast Zone, there are some who still mourn for the mountain the way it was before the eruption, particularly those who had a personal connection to it, such as Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes in “Coming Back to the Lady:” “Mount St. Helens has been my neighbor for more than forty-five years. If I look straight north out the window at the head of our bed, she is the first thing I see in the morning, dark in the dawn twilight, or floating pale above the mist at sunrise.” Le Guin watched from her window on May 18, 1980 as cloud cover cleared, revealing an “incredible column of dust and ash rising thousands of feet…over a blur of haze where the mountain had been.” Sixteen months later, she and a group of friends “pulled a few governmental strings” and set off in a VW Bus up to see the mountain. Le Guin reports that “the scale” of what she saw there “was beyond comprehension,” and notes that she’s written about it but “never felt I could describe it adequately.”
Portland native Christine Colasurdo felt a similar sense of loss after the eruption, because her family owned a cabin near Spirit Lake and she grew up hiking in the area. Devastated, it took her years to visit the site again, which she wrote about in her 1997 book Return to Spirit Lake. Colasurdo, suffering from “a grief so strange it seemed more like vertigo than mourning,” eventually took comfort in the survival of a flower called pearly everlasting. She writes of the scientific characteristics of this flower, as well as its place in prior literature, noting that Thoreau derided it as being “artificial,” and that most tribes of Northwest Native Americans “have neither a name nor use for it.” But Colasurdo develops a fondness for the tenacious flower, which is often “one of the first plants to revegetate a clearcut or burn.”
The scientists in this volume tend to be more optimistic about the changes the eruption brought and genuinely enthusiastic about the opportunity to observe and record the aftermath of such a cataclysmic natural event. Charlie Crisafulli writes that the eruption “gave ecologists, myself included, unprecedented opportunities for studying how organisms initially respond to a complex ensemble of volcanic disturbance processes.” Scientist Jerry F. Franklin has spent half his career studying post-eruption Mount St. Helens, and writes that “This collaborative journey has moved me to continuously alter my views of ecological disturbances and the concept of ‘recover’—and the evolution of both landscape and mind continue!”
There is one scientist, Nalini M. Nadkarni, who admits feeling a divide between the scientific and emotional parts of her brain in relation to Mount St. Helens. Nadkarni, who is a world-renown expert in epiphytes, “plants that grow on other plants,” was interested in studying the ability of epiphytes “to regenerate if they are removed or disturbed.” As she discovered, it can take decades for mosses to make a comeback. But although as a scientist she was interested in observing the changes in the blast zone, “after a few days of seeing and stepping over and sleeping next to the trunks of so many dead trees, I felt an unexpected pool of deep sadness in my chest.” Upon reflection, Nadkarni concludes, “Understanding and successfully communicating the importance of the links between nature and humans may lie in merging the complementary forces of science and poetry.”
Any reflection on a natural event as dramatic as the eruption of Mount St. Helens, which lingers twenty-eight years later in the minds of those who witnessed it, does seem to call for a blend of poetry and science such as the one provided by In the Blast Zone.