Forty years ago today, Mt. St Helens exploded. I heard and felt the blast at my home 150 miles away in Tacoma. I could see the 15-mile-high cloud of ash from my front yard. I saw the lahar in real time on the evening news as a house rammed into a bridge over the I-5 freeway. I spoke to a friend in Pullman, Washington, as her day turned to night at Washington State University, just days before she graduated.
The true impact of the eruption and the losses were discovered in the following weeks. A vulcanologist tending instruments near the crater had died shortly after warning, “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it.” Half-buried vehicles were found on the mountainside. Forests had been flattened, with sturdy fir trees snapped off like toothpicks six feet above the ground. Spirit Lake on the side of the mountain, as well as Spirit Lake Lodge and its caretaker 80-year-old Harry Truman, had vanished. A total of 57 people died. The Toutle River, which flows from glaciers on the mountain, was clogged with mud and logs all the way to the Columbia River, obstructing boats and barges. The I-5 between Seattle and Portland was closed for weeks for cleanup and safety inspections. The entire area looked more barren than a moonscape. The devastation was unimaginable.
Yet, even a few years later, life returned to the mountain. Flowers bloomed. Animals roamed through the ash. A new Spirit Lake began to form, and frogs that had been buried alive under scalding ash re-emerged, alive and kicking. Communities that had been desolated by the eruption and its aftermath came together, supported each other, and received assistance from neighbors outside the blast zone.
That was my first major disaster. It taught me that life goes on, nature finds a way, and silver linings can be found. I have some beautiful pieces of art created from Mt St Helens ash–they are unique reminders that the world does not end because major change occurs. The poster above hangs on my wall to commemorate.
Since then, I have coped with various disasters–parents stricken by dementia, a metastatic lung cancer diagnosis, and now COVID-19. Each of these rocked my world. But life goes on, and even in disaster, beauty can be found. We must be willing to adapt, to care for one another, to find a way.
When life kicks your ash, make beauty.