Catastrophe or Nature’s Process?

Twenty-five years after Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption, Oregon State University sponsored a four-day trip into the blast zone.  They invited relevant scientists, nature writers, other artists and academics from around the country to camp seven miles from the crater and ultimately write something that melded personal experience with professional expertise. When the 1980 eruption took place, scientists had expected the blast zone to remain a “moonscape” to be gradually colonized from the outside and were shocked when only days later tiny ferns poked through the thick layer of ash and debris.  The persistence of renewal in the face of catastrophe forms the premise for the personal essays, poems, and scientific observations in this anthology.

Each of the writers confronts the significance of the eruption that covered miles with soot and ash, flattened trees, and killed fifty-seven hikers and thousands of birds, elk, fish, and marmots.  Christine Colasurdo, a writer and activist whose family owned a cabin on Mount St. Helens, asks how she can begin to love a lake and a mountain she no longer recognizes: “But not only had I lost an entire landscape, I myself was lost – a stranger in what should have been familiar land” (78).  Other essays begin with Mount St. Helens but travel to explore more personal experiences of loss or renewal.  Author Susan Zwinger compares the eruption and subsequent ecological recovery to her mother’s recuperation from a stroke as Zwinger finishes the essay her mother began: “Her mind, like volcanic lava, is still there, but churning underground” (100).

At times, the writers’ considerations of what loss, catastrophe, and recovery mean seem forced and even occasionally veer dangerously close to the sentimental; at worst, some of the scientific pieces are dry or overly formulaic.  The essays and poems by acclaimed authors such as Kathleen Dean Moore, Gary Snyder, Ursula LeGuin, Kim Stafford, and Scott Russell Sanders do not disappoint, but the most surprising and memorable writing comes from scientists like geologist Frederick Swanson, tree scientist Nalini M. Nadkarni, and moss ecologist Robin Kimmerer who successfully bridge deep understandings of themselves with specialized knowledge of ecosystems.  Like the diversity of plants and animals repopulating the blast zone, this anthology’s selection is rich, textured, and necessary.

IN THE BLAST ZONE Catastrophe and Renewal on MOUNT ST. HELENS

Ed. Charles Goodrich, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Frederick Swanson

Softcover, Oregon State University Press, 2008


ISBN # 0978-0-87071-198-5

— Andrea Clark Mason


In the Blast Zone

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