No one is immune from the occasional cosmic gut punch. Stuff happens in every life that’s life threatening, gut-wrenching, and/or soul crushing. We’re dazed initially when it happens, but eventually, we literally need to come back to Life.
There is no better place to remember this than at Mount St. Helens. I had the chance to hike there this week. Seeing what’s going on there 33 years after its own cosmic gut punch was amazing.
On May 18, 1980 at 8:32 AM Pacific Time, this previously dormant volcano in Washington’s Cascade mountains roared to life with stunning devastation. The top 1500 feet of the mountain slumped off the north side after a 5.1 earthquake. Horrendous volcanic explosions that hurled rocks and hot gases at over 300 miles per hour followed in seconds. The heat of that caused the snow and ice on the mountain to melt, resulting in massive mud flows that swept a slurry of muddy water, ice, rocks, and trees over the landscape and into local lakes and rivers.
The blast downed or killed over 217 square miles of timber. Virtually every bird in the vicinity, most of the mammals, and many of the fish died. The debris was as much as 150 feet deep. At the end of that day, the devastation was complete. The landscape was as inhospitable as the moon. Much of the mountain still looks that way:
The dome in the center near was is now the top of the mountain grew after that unbelievable day. The volcano spewed lava for six years, but in more subdued fashion. It’s quiet now, but still on fire inside. The dark area shows how much the debris has been carved by ground water in the ensuing years.
Thirty-three years isn’t even a nanosecond in terms of geologic time. In the grand scheme of seismic change, it’s like we are still in the same moment the mountain blew up. But if you look closer (or in this case, behind you), the evidence that life goes on is all around at Mount St. Helens.
The area is now a National Volcanic Monument, and the US Forest Service does a nice job of explaining how that happened. Even when the entire mountain was convulsing, pocket gophers were safely burrowed underground. When the violence stopped, they started digging out. That action shoved dormant seeds to the surface. Within weeks, those had sprouted and plants were starting to grow.
Some of the fish avoided the catastrophe because they were below the ice of a still frozen lake, which helped moderate the impact of the heat. Once the lake thawed fully later, their existence continued as if nothing had happened.
But even in the lakes where everything had been killed, life returned with unexpected speed. On land, mammals and birds carried seeds from beyond the blast zone back on hooves and feathers or in intestines, giving even more plants the chance to germinate and grow. And now, not even four decades after the blast, Mount St. Helens has more a more biodiversity than it did before the top blew off.
Yes, the timber companies harvested many of the downed trees and planted many more to replace them. Yes, it looks different. But life really has gone on at Mount St. Helens. The day we were there, wildflowers were screaming their colors in the sun all along the trail.
The red of Indian paintbrush, the fragrant lavender blue of prairie lupine, a variety of different yellows flowers dancing happily in the breeze and even an occasional young spruce tree made the place look like a garden. Entire forests of alder trees have grown up. (Alders create a better soil for later trees.)
You can’t get much more destruction than what went on at Mount St. Helens in 1980. And yet, life there is back without hesitation. That’s such a great lesson.
Even if what happened is awful. Even if what it left you with is far “less” than what you had before, go on. Be part of it. It might be different, but it can still be rich and diverse and beautiful.
Mary Lloyd is a speaker and consultant and author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote and Do What You Love. For more, see her website.