Wednesday, May 19, 2010

When Your Mountain Top Explodes

I have Mount Saint Helens on the brain--yesterday was the 30th anniversary of that eruption. Those of us who live far away from volcanoes forget about how destructive they can be. The Mount Saint Helens eruption was a doozy.

I've been thinking about the geologist David Johnston who was on duty in a watchtower during the explosion. He died. There were photographers who died. I think of people who decided to go camping that week-end who happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time. As I understand the history, the mountain exploded sideways, which no one expected, and so some people were in places that weren't expected to be affected by the volcano.

More people could have died, thousands more, if the authorities had ignored the scientists and had bowed to pressure to reopen the areas they closed during the months when they knew the volcano was about to erupt.

Ten years ago, I listened to a variety of retrospectives on NPR. I remembered the explosion, but I was in high school and involved in dramas of my own. I didn't realize how bad it was until hearing the twenty year retrospective.

Yesterday, the day of the 30th anniversary of the Mount Saint Helens eruption, was much quieter. We've got another disaster on the brain, after all, as we here on the nation's southernmost coastlines keep an anxious watch out for the oil that has started to wash up on our beaches, oil from another example of the power of geological forces.

I took great hope from the descriptions of the moonscape-like atmospheres that were left after the explosion and the growth that occurred in the following years. Maybe our oceans will be similarly renewed.

As always, ten years ago, I was inspired by the metaphorical possibilities, and I wrote this poem, which appeared in A Summer's Reading:

Thirteen Miles

My declining health, your job loss—our comfortable
life explodes. That clean mountainside crumbles.
Stress builds, and the volcano explodes.
We can see the coming cataclysm,
the moment for which we have prepared,
the disaster we thought we could avoid.
We saved money and thought we were safe,
like those folks who lived thirteen
miles away from Mount Saint Helen’s
but the mountain swallowed them whole.

The day after the volcanic explosion,
we emerge into sunshine, amazed
that the sun rose as if it was any normal
morning. The world, covered in ash, loses
its color. Tragedy paints
our world black and white. We can’t imagine
how life can continue.

And yet, life struggles on, swims towards continuity.
We have ecosystems protected deep inside ourselves,
whole worlds that we didn’t even know existed. We discover
them now that our misfortunes have blasted
away the undergrowth that took eons to grow.
In twenty years, we won’t recognize
our various, volcanic landscapes.

1 comment:

Sandy Longhorn said...

K., thanks for this post. One of my classmates visited Mt. St. Helens a year later and brought back a vial of ash. It was like a relic we all passed around the classroom.
Great poem!