a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
I could see the cover of TIME magazine from down the block. There it was, clipped to the outside rack of a London news stand: a full-page photo of snarling billows, of something more sinister than smoke, pouring upward from a mountain that looked like it had just been beheaded by a supersized chainsaw.
“The Big Blowup,” TIME’s headline screamed.
It was Mount St. Helens. My Mount St. Helens.
I grabbed the magazine, and paid for it, and clutched it to my chest like a compress as I ran down the steps into the Tube station.
I was 23. Mount St. Helens was young, too, for a mountain: a mere 40 thousand years old. Its famously elegant snowy cone, now gone forever, was thought to be only 2,200 years old. Before it erupted on May 18, 1980, St. Helens’ silhouette had often been compared to Mount Fuji’s.
I boarded the train and began to turn the pages of TIME. Slowly. Stunned. I remember a body sprawled on top of a half-submerged pickup truck; trees and cabins and deer tossed aside like old toys; whole forests stripped and scattered like matchsticks; lakes smothered; ash-caked cars a hundred miles away. But it was the aerial shots that shocked me the most. The ugliness of the mud and lava. The quantity of it. The way it had coated everything. I began to cry.
“The summit rippled, churned, and then collapsed as more than two billion tons of rock, snow, and glacial ice fell away in the largest landslide recorded in human history,” writes Eric Wagner in After the Blast: The Ecological Recovery of Mount St. Helens (University of Washington Press: April 2020). The eruption began at 8:32 a.m. on Sunday, May 18, 1980, lasted nine hours, and caused the deaths of 57 people. The fact that it happened on a Sunday morning is nearly always noted in the recounting of the Mount St. Helens story, because, as Wagner later tells us, “At 8:30 on a Monday morning, several hundred loggers would have been arriving for their shifts, the mountain ringing with the high whines of their chainsaws, the toots and chirps of whistles. The lateral blast would have killed them all.”
In February of this year, I asked for and eagerly received an advance copy of After the Blast. I started to read it just as a strange, coronavirus-triggered illness called Covid-19 was flaring up in a nursing home outside Seattle, where I live. Our governor, our county executive and our mayor were suddenly everywhere in the news.
As February turned into March, reliving the drama of Mount St. Helens became my reading refuge from the daily drumbeat of what we soon began to call a pandemic—first a few deaths, then dozens; first a few safety tips, then stay-at-home orders. No masks yet; the health care workers needed them.
Forty years ago, in that moment on the London Tube, as I took in those first photos of the “largest landslide in human history,” I knew that soon, maybe not right away but soon, I would need to go home. I was no longer a young woman in love with her scrappy life of travel and waitressing; I was a homesick daughter of the Northwest.
I understood that Mount St. Helens, a volcano, had done exactly what volcanoes are destined to do. That it was not an unnatural act, not an outrage against nature, but nature in primal, inevitable action. But to see the landscape so wounded, so changed, shocked me. And it awakened me: to the startling depth of the love I felt for my sodden, seismically fragile, hometown corner of the United States.
In the summer of 1982, after eight years away, I finally moved back to Seattle. Like so many young Northwesterners before and since, I understood: this was my habitat. I went to work as a newswriter at a TV station. Everyone but me, it seemed, had a real Mount St. Helens story: a story of covering the eruption as a reporter or cameraman; a story of chopper pilots flying in as close as they dared, day after day in the weeks leading up to the blast, until finally, the mountain blew. Their tales filled me with intense cub-journalist envy. I was the new hire, which meant I spent the swing shift chained to the newsroom, writing 30-second stories for the anchors to read between the reporters’ longer pieces, and then, just before 11pm, racing over to the hand-cranked teleprompter, which I ran during the newscast. If an anchor mispronounced, say, “Bologna, Italy” it was my fault because I hadn’t put a pronouncer on the script.
But I did have my own private version of a Mount St. Helens story, which was that I came home. And I began to learn what the mountain’s real story was: not the mud, not the destruction, but regeneration.
Over my five years at the TV station, photographers began to bring back aerial footage of seedlings breaking through the debris. Of streams running clear again. Of birds and animals returning. But I still hadn’t witnessed these wonders with my own eyes. As a child, I had visited Mt. Rainier and hiked in the Olympic Mountains, but I had never seen Mount St. Helens up close.
In After the Blast, Wagner writes about those first seedlings; purple flashes of fireweed popping up in the blast zone, still warm underfoot, just a few weeks after May 18. His approach to this enormous and superlative-friendly story (which is how it has mostly been reported, on every significant anniversary since 1980) is to tell it through the scientists who showed up right after the eruption and immediately understood the importance of embarking on long-term studies of its effects on everything: birds, insects, algae, lakes, streams, small plants, tall trees, trout, salmon, big mammals, tiny mammals, and the geology and continued volcanic activity of the mountain itself.
Through Wagner, we meet scholars whose work requires hard physical labor, through all weather and every season, in many cases over decades. Their commitment to studying the regeneration of a landscape devastated by the largest landslide in recorded history involved much more than the occasional flyover with fancy binoculars. It was about hiking up long, steep trails with backpacks full of rebar, which they used to mark out study plots. It was about trying to set out sample collectors in Spirit Lake, which the eruption had covered with a huge “mat” of heavy, dead, roiling and colliding logs. It was about tagging fish and gathering insects in jars.
As I read, the numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths climbed steadily every day.
On March 14, our 27-year-old son and his girlfriend woke up feeling lousy. Over the next few days, isolated together in Bellingham, they both started to feel better. Then our son suddenly felt much worse. Fever, chills, aches, shortness of breath, nausea, no sense of smell. But he wasn’t old enough or sick enough to merit a test. Meanwhile, my stepmother’s time-sensitive surgery for early-stage lung cancer was postponed twice while she waited eight days for her Covid-19 test results.
And in Italy, and then New York, and then dozens and hundreds and thousands of other places, the numbers of cases and deaths began to rage.
At what point did epidemiologists start to feel like the seismologists of forty years ago? As they took their readings, and watched the mountain begin to smoke and steam, and thought: It’s going to blow. But we don’t know exactly when. And it is 100 percent out of our control.
As they watched and waited, the volcano scientists did their best to warn the public; to urge road closures and evacuations. But the virus scientists of early 2020 bore a different burden. It’s much harder to persuade people to take seriously a common enemy that can’t be seen without a microscope. Especially if your own government wishes you would just be quiet and stop alarming everyone.
By the 1990s, I was no longer working for the TV station, but instead was freelancing, mostly as a writer for art museums and other nonprofits, and only very occasionally as a TV news producer. One day I got a call for a day’s work on an upbeat CBS news piece about harvesting taxol from yew trees in Washington state to make cancer drugs. I was the field producer: I did a few brief interviews to go with the footage of the trees, and we fed the tape by satellite to New York so it could make the news that night. For my minimal effort, I earned a place on the media list of the timber company that owned the yew farm.
It still came as a surprise, one summer day in 1995, when I was invited by the timber giant’s PR people to spend several hours flying over southwestern Washington for an aerial view of the forests surrounding Mount St. Helens. I would be one of nine guests. The others were full-time journalists, activists, business people, and lawmakers.
When I heard we would be flying over Mount St. Helens, I jumped at the chance.
“I don’t have time to pitch this to anyone,” I said when I phoned in my RSVP. “But I’d still love to go.”
“That’s fine,” I was told. “We just want you to have this experience.”
I had thought I might write an essay about it. Something in my own voice, as opposed to my neutral news voice, or my persuasive, press release voice. For about a year, I’d been trying to free myself from those voices. I’d been writing fiction, for the first time since college. Creatively, it was exhilarating. From a practical, work/life standpoint, it was a sort of rumbling, pre-volcanic disaster.
What I ended up writing about that helicopter junket was an ode to the regeneration of Mount St. Helens, from the point of view of an aspiring fiction writer. But I didn’t know what to do with such a piece, and life was busy, so I shelved it.
Re-reading it now, I am struck by how hard I was working at becoming a writer, while also doing freelance work, while also taking care of two small children, while also looking in frequently on my mom, who was having some serious memory problems.
I wanted so badly, 25 years ago, to fit the metaphor of the mountain to this Writing Life I was trying to shape, despite all the other lives I was simultaneously living.
I especially wanted to include the story of the return of the elk. Of whom I wrote, in 1995, after seeing them from the helicopter:
In my mind they move, hundreds strong, like a brown river across the tundra-like Mount St. Helens blast zone.
No one expected the elk to come back. Certainly not as soon as they did, and in such numbers. The herd defied predictions. Scientists were caught by surprise.
I remember being transfixed as I watched them run through ribbons of cloud; their coats shining, their muscles rippling. As Bob, the Vietnam veteran chopper pilot, swooped lower, I remember worrying that we were too close; we were scaring them. But then I saw that we were not.
They were moving not away from us, but towards streams, towards stands of tall grasses, towards the ravines where they could be out of the rain and wind. They were used to the helicopters of scientists and foresters and their slack-jawed guests. They didn’t care whether we were watching or not.
The elk returned to the blast zone because they saw beyond and beneath the ash and mud, and they were teaching the scientists who track their movements to do the same.
In The Courage to Create, author and psychologist Rollo May writes: “We are called upon to do something new, to confront a no man’s land, to push into a forest where there are no well-worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us.”
Since I saw the elk herds in 1995, their fortunes have waxed and waned. Wagner tells the story this way: As trees grew and began to shade and thereby shrink the bushes that had sprung up in the post-eruption years, the elk were left with less to browse on in the winter months. Some began to die of starvation. A public outcry led to the distribution of a hundred tons of hay in 1999. The outcome was mixed. Illnesses spread through the suddenly crowded but still hunger-weakened herd. Over the past twenty years, the fortunes of the elk have been allowed to “rise and fall with the severity of the winters,” writes Wagner. The elk “have outgrown their old role of savior and become a creature of more complex influence.”
The regeneration of the flora and fauna of Mount St. Helens is an astonishing story of the complex creativity of nature. And in these pandemic times, when we all want so badly for science to decode nature’s creativity in order to save us, the documentation of Mount St. Helens’ ecological recovery is a testament to the busy, inquiring minds that make scientists who they are. One of the key virtues of the researchers at work in the blast zone has been patience, of the kind that is willing to wait and watch for decades while nature takes its course.
The scientists we’re placing our hope in now will need patience, too, as they search for clues to a Covid-19 vaccine or treatment, but of course they do not have the luxury of watching their work unfold at the virus’s preferred leisurely place. We hope and expect that they will speed time along, because while they are working, people will continue to get sick, and they’ll continue to die. People in meat packing plants. People in cramped farmworker housing. People in prisons and nursing homes and restaurant kitchens. We are not yet out of the actual eruption phase of this pandemic.
And: it’s not like all the other disasters in the world are suddenly on vacation.
There will still be black and brown Americans murdered by police.
There will still be a wildfire season in the West.
There will still be a hurricane season in the East.
And, in America, it is always addiction season.
On April 6, 2020, my nephew David’s life ended, 15 days before his 30 birthday, in the sudden lethal blast that is death by opioid overdose. For more than ten years, opioids—first oxycontin, then heroin—had torched through his life, demanding more and more, until finally there was nothing left to extort but his last breath. He is yet another casualty of an epidemic that, in 2018, killed 47,590 people in the United States. Overdoses from all opioids, including heroin and its deadly synthetic cousin fentanyl, continue to kill an estimated 130 people in America every day.
That David is abruptly, suddenly gone from this world in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic is surreal and head-spinning. One of the greatest cruelties of it is that we can’t gather as a family. To say goodbye, together, to the hope that he could find a path to regeneration; the hope we kept rekindling, over the years, again and again and again. Instead, we are suddenly vulnerable and fragile: not in the kind of high-wire way that David was for the last decade, but in this strange new way that forces us into isolation and smoldering dread.
When I returned to Seattle in 1982, I was still several years away from motherhood, but I already had one nephew and one niece. I was so happy to be an aunt who no longer lived ridiculously far away. I wanted to watch my family grow and sink roots and regenerate in ways I couldn’t begin to predict. Now, the nephew/niece generation, including my own two children, numbers 21. And they’ve started a next-next generation, which, so far, numbers four.
David is the younger generations’ first loss. We will never not count him.
“We know that each of us must develop the courage to confront death,” Rollo May wrote. “Yet we also must rebel and struggle against it. Creativity comes from this struggle: out of the rebellion the creative act is born.”
I pray for such courage. Spring 2020 has been a difficult time to write.
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard likened the creative life to that of an inchworm on a blade of grass, whose “every step brings it to the universe’s rim.”
In 1995, I wrote: I want to step onto the rim of the universe every day, in the blind, groping manner of the inchworm, all the while hoping for the grace of the elk.
In 2013, I finally scaled Mount St. Helens with my own two feet. It’s a hike, not a technical climb, but on a hot summer day, it is punishing: 4,500 feet of elevation gained in five miles. The last 1,000 feet upward are nothing but ash and what the hike book calls “small rocks;” it felt like trying to scale an endless sand dune. But then, finally, you inchworm on up to the rim, and you get to see the volcano in action: sending up its tufts of steam, building its new dome, youthfully oblivious to its majestic, much older neighbors, Rainier and Adams, hovering on the horizon line.
In 2020, I understand the notion of the “creative life” differently.
I understand that, in a time of such uncertainty, every life is creative. We are all on the rim of the universe every day. Scientists, nurses, doctors. Teachers and parents. Bus drivers and grocers and farmers. People who are making masks and getting food to people who need it. People who are protesting. People who are staying home because they have to, and finding meaning because they must. People who are lonely. Or are mourning. Or are scared of everything.
My son recovered. My stepmom’s surgery went well. But all the pretty metaphors in the world, all the talk of creativity and courage and grace, will not bring David back. Nor will they bring back the more than one million victims, worldwide, (as of October 1—but those are just the deaths that have been counted) of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here’s a hope: one day we’ll wake up to this headline, splashed across the news stands of the Internet: The Big Breakthrough.
And we’ll ask ourselves: now that the eruption is over, what will regeneration look like? What kind of growth will we encourage, and nurture?
How will we heal those most ravaged by this illness?
How will we heal the spirits of the doctors and nurses who had to witness so much suffering and death?
Meanwhile, we will be rebuilding our broken economy. The way we work may change forever. Sick leave, affordable child care, livable wages, safe work spaces: there could be a fighting chance that support for basic workers’ rights will gain momentum, now that we understand that such rights save lives.
I wonder what we will sing, dance, write, paint, perform, create.
I wonder whether our pandemic gardens will grow again next year, or whether we will we be too busy to garden because we’re planning plane trips, car trips, cruises, weddings, graduations, reunions, funerals.
Will we become more communal and compassionate, or will we retreat even further from each other?
Will we return to churches, temples and mosques? Will we feel that God was with us through it all, or will we be angry at God? That is, if we believe, or try to believe, in a divine presence; an essence of love and mercy.
During the medieval Plague years, the mystic Julian of Norwich wrote: All will be well. And all will be well. And every kind of thing shall be well. This was God’s message to her, delivered in a vision when she was on what she thought was her deathbed, though, miraculously, it was not.
In the rivers and streams that tumble down and surround Mount St. Helens, it was the steelhead salmon that charted the most astoundingly creative paths to regeneration. Driven by instinct but beset with one eruption-triggered rerouting or debris dam or wall of mud and rocks after another, somehow a few unstoppable steelhead made it back to their spawning grounds and kept their ancestors’ genes alive. Though their origin stream no longer looked anything like the one they had left for their long migration to the Pacific Ocean and back, they could smell that it was home.
Wagner writes that one run went from zero in 1980 to fourteen fish per mile in 1984 to forty per mile in 1987, “the sense of home saturated so deep in their bones that only extinction will drive them from this place for good.”
We don’t yet know how we’ll find our way back to life as we knew it, or whether we’ll want to, or what it will look like when we get there. After the Big Blast. In the time that doesn’t exist yet; the time of the Big Breakthrough.
Ann Hedreen is the author of Her Beautiful Brain, winner of a 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Award. She has recently completed a second memoir, After Ecstasy. Her blog, The Restless Nest, earned an honorable mention in the 2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists competition. Ann and her husband Rustin Thompson own White Noise Productions and together have made more than 150 short films and several feature documentaries. Ann has a BA from Wellesley College, an MFA from Goddard College and is an alumna of the Hedgebrook retreat for women writers. She is a frequent speaker and teacher of memoir writing at Seattle Central College, Hugo House and other venues. Her writing has been published in 3rd Act Magazine, The Seattle Times, Crosscut, Grist, Patheos, Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, Minerva Rising and elsewhere.