Mt. St. Helens blow down timber

A Lesson from Mt. St. Helens

The paradox of volcanoes is that they are symbols of destruction but also life. Once the lava slows and cools, it becomes rich, fertile soil for new growth.”
~ Matt Haig, Author The Midnight Library

May 18th, 2022 will be 42 years since 1,300 feet of the top and side of Mt. St Helens was blown off and pulverized in an eruption 500 times the power of the atomic 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 an oversized 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. You should read the Mount St. Helens chapter in my book. It describes our harrowing escape and the bizarre events surrounding it.

In the book, I detail our escape off of the mountain. 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. 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 both in nature and 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 wildlife 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 Mt 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 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 as our population grows beyond the holding capacity of our planet. 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 Facing the Moment is of Mount St Helens in the throes of its eruption. In it the clouds are rolling across a clear blue sky and it was evident that a major decimation was 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 earth’s thundering shudder or the sounds of thousands of trees breaking like matchsticks as a 30-foot wall of hot mud traveling at upwards of 70 mph (the largest recorded landslide in recorded history) descended down the mountainside taking everything in its path along with it. It’s hard to fathom just how massive an event this was.

Only now, after years have passed, can we see how things have changed and how nature has renewed herself. I write about eruption and renewal because I think it provides a reliable blueprint of how life works, what life cycles look like and how we can navigate them. When we were outrunning the pyroclastic flow in my car, if I had taken my hands off the wheel for even a second, we would’ve been enveloped. When I sped across the bridge as it was being devoured by the landslide, its structure was disintegrating. If there was any hope of crossing it, I had to stay clear, centered, flexible and determined. I aimed for the middle because as the structure gave way, I thought it to be the most agile position for me to make decisions on the fly. I have come to regard that formula as the survival message of our times.

As we move through the threats of climate change and social upheaval, a natural reaction is to batten down the hatches, become defensive and entrench in what we think are our best choices. But when we do this in advance, we take away the opportunity to make adjustments in real-time. We hinder our ability to respond creatively to changing circumstances. Among the many things that Mount St. Helens’ taught me, one of the primary lessons was that in times of strife, you have to be ready to change your position quickly. You have to have faith in your ability and solve the real problem at hand, whatever it may be. You have to recognize the reality of what you are confronted with (not your perception of it), all the while staying focused on coming through the chaos. Good leaders know this.

Study what’s currently going on in Ukraine. The devastation there has many tentacles and a worldwide reach. It is playing out in real-time and is forcing real issues that require real and immediate action rather than simply pledges to act. Recognize that wildfires, floods and mega-storms are all part of the man-made climate change that’s bearing down on us. Terrorism, starvation, political upheavals are signs of pressure, of life out of balance that, if not mitigated, will lead to worldwide eruptions. These issues are demanding that we be clear, centered, flexible and determined; that countries and governments speak truth, name the issues and call upon all of us to have faith in our collective ability to work through our predicaments now, while we still have a chance to act intelligently.

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