Summer of 2017 in the Pacific Northwest was a somewhat apocalyptic time. Forest fires surrounded us on all sides. Some were sparked naturally in the heat of high summer, some were sparked fatefully by careless human hands. As ash drifted down over Portland, we took a trip to another ashy, apocalyptic place.
The Mt. Margaret backcountry is a part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State. It lies north-northeast of Mt. St. Helens, directly in the 143 sq mile blast zone from the 1980 eruption of the volcano. The eruption blew out the north side of the mountain coating the surrounding area in mud, debris, downed trees, and many inches of ash. Thirty-seven years later the habitat and ecology are still starkly mysterious.
Trees are brittle and prickly like aloof hermits. They’re no more than 10-15 feet high and the rest of the vegetation varies greatly from hillside to hillside. Certain slopes were protected from the blast by ridges and snowfields. These areas have waist-high bushes of salmonberry and rowan.
Other slopes that were more exposed are covered in tough, low-growing heathers and mountain strawberries. Flowers are all around having moved into the open areas: fireweed, lupin, beargrass, pearly everlasting. In every direction you can see the charred remains of the forest. Burned trees that have turned silver over time and have been flattened like splintery toothpicks. A few still act as lone vertical sentinels.
Ecologists agree that progress really started accelerating at the 30 year mark as new growth and vegetation became pervasive enough to sustain itself. Prior to this, seeds blew into the blast zone on the wind and life slowly crept inward from the outer edges.
The trail and much of the open ground was still ashy, and the silky cinders poofed up in little plumes where we set our feet down. It was a hot weekend and with barely any tree canopy the experience was hot, dry, and dusty. The smoke from the forest fires all around Oregon and Washington obscured what would otherwise have been a majestic view of Mt. St. Helens and the surrounding ridgelines. It felt both slightly oppressive and as well as expansive. We were closed in on all sides by smoke, but we knew there was more out there- massive cliffs and plunging valleys- if only we could see them!
Walking amongst the ashes was eerie. The knowledge that in our lifetimes the earth below our feet had been charred by boiling winds, smothered in silt, or encrusted by lava made us check our jaunty assumptions that each day would bring blissful strength and hardiness. It deepened an already existing note of reverence for the looming mountain hiding in hazy obscurity.
With reverence there comes a renewed feeling of responsibility, of conscience. From greed and the flawed design of the empire economy comes human destruction- eradication of natural habitat with parking lots, subdivisions, and multi-lane highways. It's this type of irresponsibility that perpetuates man-made natural disasters: disease, displacement, and destruction exacerbated by human-fueled climate change.
If we have the option to do right, shouldn’t we? Because really: What is the difference between a hardened 6-mile pumice flow and a never-ending expanse of paved parking lots to a herd of elk? Either way the herd loses. We won’t stop a volcano. Can we stop ourselves?