Death and rebirth: What St. Helens teaches us

Thinking about the mountain on Cascadia Day

Today, May 18, 2021, is the 41st anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption that blasted a large zone around it and sent ash clouds across the world. It is why May 18 is commemorated as Cascadia Day.  Here is part of a longer piece, so far unpublished, on what the mountain has meant to me over the decades, and the lessons it teaches about our existence on Planet Earth. 

It was May, 18, 1980.  I was dwelling in Okanogan, a Washington mountain town about 200 miles to the northeast of Mt. St. Helens, working as county bureau chief for the Wenatchee World, the regional paper.  On that Sunday morning, sleeping off a bit of a hangover from a whiskey-drinking Saturday night down at the local dance hall, I was shocked awake by a thunderous, double whumf-whumf that sounded like the sonic boom of an F-16 flying 500 feet overhead. Having recently read about people in other remote areas being buzzed by fighters, I cursed the Air Force and turned over to sleep the rest of my Saturday night off. 

Around noon my desk editor called from his office 100 miles to the south. Marv told me the mountain had finally blown. St. Helens had been bulging and spewing for weeks. But it was on the other side of the state and I'd been focused on stories closer to home. The story was coming home that day. Marv told me dust clouds were already rolling over Wenatchee, where he was. Expect them to move into the Okanogan later that afternoon. 

That day and several times more over coming weeks, Okanogan County was dusted. Life across the region was disrupted in myriad ways for weeks.  Down south in the Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin, inches of ash covered everything, turning day into night. Mudflows blocked shipping on the Columbia River and clogged water intakes at a very poorly located nuclear reactor, forcing a shutdown. (Fortunately it is now closed for good.)

Even on the periphery of the ashfall, the mountain stripped life of normalcy and brought a sense of the apocalyptic invading the everyday. My car’s carburetor intake wore a dust mask to prevent engine damage. At one point, ashfall blocked my route home from an Oregon trip, forcing me to take an agonizingly long detour on a jammed highway.  I suffered a case of cabin fever from staying mostly indoors to avoid breathing the glass-like shards of ash.  No doubt a few shards remain lodged in my lungs, so the mountain is a part of me quite literally. 

Experiencing history’s first great volcanic blast in an industrialized region is a fine teacher on the subject of human power relative to nature’s. During the 1980s a mural of that day covered much of a second-floor wall at Portland City Hall.  It depicted a blast cloud rising to the stratosphere just to the north.  An uninformed observer could easily have taken it as an anti-nuclear statement.  And 1980s Portland did generate a broad, local nuclear freeze movement.  Perhaps the sight of a mushroom cloud filling the horizon provided some subconscious  backdrop.  In fact, St. Helens was the largest explosion on the continent in the habitation of humans.  Commonly estimated at around 20 megatons, only two nuclear tests exceeded it in size. It was larger than any of the U.S. bomb tests and is tied for third place with three of the Soviet’s.  

One of the advantages of living in Cascadia is having a volcanic blast zone close at hand to play around in.  I like to hike it every couple of years. The mountain is a muse for me, of natural power and life’s endless cycles of destruction and creation, of impermanence and change. In times of personal despair, when I’ve felt torn town, blown away and devastated inside, I’ve found a strange solace and hope in the sight of the mountain’s flattened peak. I look to the mountain and understand this is only a temporary phase, part of the process toward building a new peak.  I have watched over the years as the blast zone has slowly greened up, and seen the mountain rebuilding itself at speeds that seem more biological than geological, pushing its lava dome higher in its U-shaped crater.   Ironically, a new glacier, perhaps the youngest on Earth, grows in a donut around the lava dome.  It is one of the world’s few mountain glaciers still advancing in this warming world.  

That U-shape is a result of a highly unusual lateral blast that opened the mountain to the north side, allowing one to look straight into the volcano’s business end.  On May 18, the mountain blew scouring, ash-laden winds and towering walls of superheated mud and debris across a wide arc of the landscape, hurtling at speeds that make a fast freeway seem like a crawl.  Because St. Helens blasted out as well as up, the zone of destruction was wider than expected, around 230 miles, catching 57 souls unexpectedly. Only two were in the red zone designated to keep people out of danger, the famed Harry R. Truman who refused to abandon his beloved Spirit Lake Lodge,  and David Johnston, the young U.S. Geological Service volcanologist who was monitoring the volcano that day.  His final words shouted over the radio to the nearby USGS observatory, spoken moments before he was consumed by the wave front of the blast, “Vancouver, this is it,” announced the eruption to the world. The names of the dead are etched into a memorial on the ridgeline now named after him.

In July 2009, I opted to spend several days at the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, created as a living laboratory to explore the regeneration of the landscape and the mountain itself.  Oddly, it’s a volcano administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, because prior to the blast it was U.S. Forest Service timber land, and remains under the USDA agency’s management. 

Approaching this mountain, I am always awed at how big it is.  You round a curve on the Spirit Lake Highway leading to the peak.  It’s huge.  Couldn’t imagine it bigger.  Then another curve, and there it is, occupying an even larger part of your sight. Finally you reach the mountain, and it absolutely fills your perspective.  Arriving at the Johnston Ridge Observatory visitor center late in the afternoon on the first day, I walked only about a mile past on the Boundary Trail running along the ridge.  The mountain reigned over the rearranged landscape. Below stretched a plain created by pyroclastic flows that raised the North Fork Toutle River valley around 70 stories.  The river has cut a deep new gray-walled gorge in which a late summer trickle was still running.  On the ridge I was literally in the landslide that initiated the May 18 eruption. Noted as the largest landslide in recorded history, the mountain’s northern face tumbled across the intervening five miles, and rolled over the ridgeline then almost all the way up the next.  Large boulders from the peak were scattered about. 

That day I was seeing in the mountain a metaphor for the volcanic times in which I have lived, with its wars, upheavals, social and political revolutions, and the emergence of disruptions on a global scale.  By some synchronicity, while I was hiking, Walter Cronkite died.  It was July 17, 3:42 p.m. my time.  I found out when I returned to my motel room (very little camping at the monument), and flipped on CNN.   In the course of coverage I saw many of the era’s volcanic social and political eruptions play back before my eyes.  

The face of Walter breaking into regular programming to announce John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.  The assassinations of Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. The Beatles U.S. tour in in 1964. (In a clip Walter notes that The Beatles were on American TV first on the CBS Evening News, not The Ed Sullivan Show.)  Then the John Lennon assassination in 1980.   Field coverage of the Civil Rights Movement. The Vietnam War – his reporting on the ground puncturing any illusion that victory was possible, causing Lyndon Johnson to respond,  “If I’ve lost Cronkite I’ve lost middle America.” The space race and the moon landing – the 40th anniversary was coming up in just a few days – always enthusiastic Walter the unofficial extra astronaut.  Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon.  And in the final days before he retired in 1981, of course, the Mt. St. Helens eruption.  On the CNN panel, old NBC rival Tom Brokaw intoned, “No other journalist was at the center of so many stories.”

On the second day’s hike, I came upon another synchronicity truly expressive of the volcanic nature of our time.  It was recorded in a book I had carried out on the trail Gary Snyder’s work, danger on peaks, which opens with a series of poems on St. Helens, the cratered peak pictured on the cover.  I had found a perch to read, write and muse, sitting on Truman Trail just before it drops 100 feet or so down to the pyroclastic plain. I was sitting amid the hummocks, the biggest remaining pieces of the peak deposited by the landslide, a tremendously big pile of rocks sticking out of the 700 feet of pyroclastic flows.  I was close to the centerline of the slide, staring as directly as I ever had into the lateral crater.  From the crater lips came the dusty clouds of landslides still occurring in this place of dynamic change. In a Taoist or Zen kind of way, I had hiked down to summit Mt. St. Helens, and was now looking three miles into the empty space where it once was. Who knows?  Maybe Snyder walked on these rocks when they were several miles south and several thousand feet above.  

The Buddhist beat poet opens danger on peaks with a tale of coming down from his first summiting of St. Helens. It was 1945.  At Spirit Lake Lodge were posted pages from the Portland Oregonian reporting the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

“Horrified, blaming scientists and politicians and the governments of the world, I swore a vow to myself, something like, ‘By the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I will fight against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all my life.’”

That explained a lot about Snyder. I sat contemplating the mountain and his words, penning a few of my own.  Beauty, yes, still, an awesome beauty of destruction and rebirth. The beauty of creation itself, with the destruction that accompanies it as creation is changed and rearranged in the forge of the maker.   As if to confirm that, a blast zone butterfly immediately landed on that words I had just written.

Purity, not the once snowcapped Fuji embraced by old growth forests, yet as a pure force of nature, certainly, I continued.  

But permanence?  A Buddhist should know better.  This youngest of the Cascades volcanoes, its age is put around 40,000 years. The shattered peak of May 18, estimated as a 2,000-year-old creation, is the consummate expression of change.  An older Snyder, in a later, ironically named post-eruption poem, Pearly Everlasting, gets that. 

“The pristine mountain

just a little battered now

the smooth dome gone

ragged crown . . . 

I had asked Mt. St. Helens for help

the day I climbed it,

so seems she did

The trees all lying flat like, 

after that big party

Siddhartha went to on the night he left the house for good,

crowd of young friends whipped from sexy dancing

dozens crashed out on the floor

angelic boys and girls, sleeping it off.

A palace orgy of the gods but what

“we” see is “Blast Zone” sprinkled with

clustered white flowers

“Do not be tricked by human-centered views, says Dogen,

And Siddhartha looks it over, slips away–for another forest–

-to really get right down on life and death.

If you ask for help it comes

But not in any way you’d ever know

-thank you Loowit, lawilayt-la, smoky Ma

gracias   xiexie   grace”

So it seems a picture of impermanence, not permanence, was the mountain’s lesson, its help to Snyder, and to us.  Don’t be deceived by false notions, illusions of permanence.  Everything changes, moves around.  Don’t hold on too hard.  Let go.  Let it be.  Today the mountain is my helper, again a reminder of impermanence, dynamic change, natural force. Death and rebirth are here.  

Later I took a minor fall in the middle of a brush-lined trail.  Sitting down on the trail while I washed out my bruises, my attention was drawn to the flowering richness of new growth all around me.