I was fourteen when Mt. St. Helens last erupted. I remember my brother, who lived in Eastern Washington at the time, telling us how the ash fell like snow and they were scraping it off their cars. The devastation near the mountain was incredible. None survived within the blast zone, especially not the hardy old Harry Truman, who refused to leave Spirit Lake when evacuations were ordered. Foremost researchers and volunteers died that day. Fifty seven people in all, either dead or never found. A few survived on the edges of the blast zone, and their stories are told on the walls of the Johnston Observatory.
And yet, within days of the explosions, after the dust settled, creatures that had been spared because they make their homes in caves and tunneled beneath the earth dug their way to the surface, bringing with them seeds that had been saved and then began to be spread again over the barren landscape.
Perhaps most impressive to me was the story of the desert lupine – a beautiful and hearty purple flower that just so happens to thrive in ashy soil. The first plant to make its appearance, it had no competition from other plants, so the lupine spread until the floor of the desolate crater’s basin became a carpet of purple, creating a stable base for other plants to begin to populate.
The natural mountain landscape protected and shielded itself. Glacial lakes covered with a thick layer of ice wound up insulating and saving entire populations of sea life. Snow covered faces of the mountain shielded trees that then survived the blast. Slowly, animals returned to the area and their droppings brought more seeds from outside the blast zone which both fertilized and spread the potential for new vegetation.
I know it may not be fascinating to everyone, but I am drawn to redemption stories. So many times have I dug myself out of the ashes or crawled out of a hole I’d been buried in, feeling weak and traumatized, only to find that I’d somehow survived a blast that others did not.
Being a survivor means you have to witness the horror and devastation that rides on the aftermath of tragedy.
It means learning how to survive in an entirely new landscape where even some of the survivors don’t ultimately survive. But it also means you get to be a part of the regrowth. To witness the barren wasteland become a carpet of green and purple – growth and power.
It is a rare privilege indeed, although a backwards one, or so it would seem. And so, I travel on, spreading the seeds that I carry with me – seeds of a wisdom born of tragedy but filled also with potential and anticipation, hoping to live long enough to see the new life that will undoubtedly spring from it all.