Written by Terry Clayton and Elizabeth Harris
May 18th, 2023 will be 43 years since 1300 feet of the top and side of Mount St. Helens was blown off and pulverized in an eruption 500 times the power of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, creating chaos and violence here in the Pacific Northwest. Each year, on the anniversary of that tumultuous day, I think about the profound nature of the experience and my adrenaline-charged involvement with it. That day, the mountain imbedded in me an unwavering awe for the relentless power of nature and the will to survive. It was the most exciting day of my life, changing forever how I perceived my place in the natural order.
My companion and I escaped death several times that day. We outran the collapse of the entire side of the mountain hurtling down the face of the slope, disintegrating oversized huge cement bridge as we drove across it at breakneck speed. Once on the other side, we watched as a quarter of a million logs reamed out a valley, taking a train, oversized logging trucks and everything else in its path along with it. Time entered the realm of the surreal. Our survival was a second by second challenge as the mountain’s immediate commands became all encompassing. I devote Chapter 9 of my book, Facing the Moment: Lessons From a Global Odyssey to that fateful day. In it, I describe our harrowing escape and the bizarre events surrounding it.
I think that experience provides a blueprint of how life presents itself, what the cycles look like and how we can learn if we have eyes to see. In our man-made Western culture, we have learned to live casually, enabled by technological advances, creature comforts, and a familiar order we rely upon. Not until recently, when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived on the heels of increasing climate disasters, mass shootings, terrorism, and the decay of social order, did most of us become acutely aware of so many imminent threats to our survival. Turning points, like volcanic eruptions, put human endeavors into perspective. They remind us that death and rejuvenation are constant themes in nature as well as in human history.
All these years after that fateful day in May, there are still scars from that blast. But renewal began almost immediately and the mountain’s cone is building back; trees and wild life are returning. The ash that fell over several states is serving to rejuvenate the soil. Regeneration is taking place in obvious and subtle ways.
The Phoenix rising, the resurrection story, and the Passover that honors the need to exit one place to get to another, serve as symbolic of the cycles of life. It is a repetitive passage and unavoidable. It is how we humans move from age to age. Each renewal is preceded by the destruction that inevitably precedes it. Each age at its peak, is highly productive. It gives rise to an abundance that is ultimately unsustainable. The subsequent pressure builds over time, much like the lava dome on Mount St. Helens prior to its eruption. The impending change becomes evident and it is only a matter of time before the outburst occurs. We are living in an abundant age dominated by corporate capitalism, competitive nationalism, and liberal vs. authoritarian politics. We are over-populating and exploiting the environment beyond its natural ability to sustain us. Our technology has borrowed from the future since the onset of the Industrial Revolution and that bill is coming due. Like Mount St. Helens, we are heading toward an eruption. It will either be devastating or it can be mitigated. But the longer we wait to do something about it, the more devastating it will be.
The cover photo on my book is of Mount St. Helens in the throes of its eruption, taken minutes after the initial blast. In it, the clouds are rolling across a clear blue sky and it is evident that a major decimation is underway. What you cannot see is what followed. You cannot see the hot, thick ash that turned day into night; that turned the clear air into a toxic soup. You aren’t able to hear the explosion of trees on the edge of a pyroclastic flow or see the sap boil on the sides of the trees.
Each year, on the anniversary of that tumultuous day, I think about the profound nature of the experience and my involvement with it. That day, the mountain embedded in me an unwavering awe for the relentless power of nature. It was the most exciting day of my life, changing forever how I perceived my place in the natural order.
Turning points like this put human endeavors in perspective. Death and rejuvenation are constant themes both in nature and in human history. All these years later, there are still scars from the blast, but the cone is building back, trees and wild life are returning. The ash that fell over several states is rejuvenating the soil. Renewal is taking place in obvious and subtle ways. It is a metaphor for our times.
Living in an abundant age as we do, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that we are dominated by systems of exploitation, especially with regard to our environment which we have overburdened beyond the capacity of sustainability. Our technology has borrowed from the future since the onset of the Industrial Revolution and that bill is coming due as we grow beyond the holding capacity of our planet. Like Mount St. Helens, we are heading toward an eruption. It’s all part of a cycle in the order of things. It can either be completely devastating or it can be mitigated. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the longer we wait to do something about it, the more devastating it will be.