Forty years ago the sky went dark. I awoke from a nap on my living room couch and looked outside, perplexed as the snow came down. Hadn’t I just been playing outside in the sunshine before my lunchtime nap? I gazed out the window and noticed the strange drab yellow glow of the sky and how peculiar the snow was, fine and darker than normal.
I was 4 years old, and I don’t recall how my mom broke the news that it was volcanic ash, not snow falling from the sky. But it was fascinating. The immediate ashfall lasted a few hours and blanketed the ground with nearly 4 inches of ash. My memory of this event is comprised of vivid moments, asynchronous and dreamlike.
I remember going outside, playing in the ash as it fell. This was before we knew it wasn’t really healthy to do that. I stood in our driveway, hands reaching to the sky trying to catch the flakes as they fell. Kicking my feet in the layer of fine sediment, watching it puff. My dad brought home masks for us to wear. I remember taking the garbage out one evening after dinner in a mask, and the wheels of the cart that held our trash cans getting mired down in ash. This must have been the night it fell or the next day, because then I remember the shoveling.
My parents had the same green metal snow shovel for probably 30 years. I remember that green shovel scraping across the driveway. It wasn’t me, maybe my dad, maybe my brother. But I remember the shoveling was important before it hardened up from rain. Then later, I remember snowplows traveling through the streets scraping the caked ash off the streets and front loaders scooping it up. Where did it get hauled off to?
I remember schools being closed and watching the ash dissipate over the months to come as it got covered up by the growth of the summer, turned in the garden, or blown away. For years, the layer was visible in gardens and road cuts. Even today, driving in some areas of the state, the white line looks like an Oreo cookie spread through the soil.
While other childhood memories span a decade in a swirling stew of play, school, family, and friends, Mount St. Helens is one of the first memories that I can place distinctly in place and time. There are certain events that leave a mark forever, and Mount St. Helens is one of them.
I can’t help but wonder how our kids will remember coronavirus. We learned a lot from Mount St. Helens about volcanoes and the processes of natural recovery. It heightened a general awareness of the awesome scale and magnitude a single event can have on a landscape and how we really can’t control it.
There are lessons to be learned about people’s response and revolt to the warnings leading up to Mount St. Helens. It feels eerily prescient, and we should take heed. There were imminent signs from scientists who issued warnings, and a road blockage was put up. But for weeks not much happened on the mountain. People grew skeptical, fed up with the warnings, irritated by road blockades to their favorite campsites and fishing holes. Bowing to the demands of vocal locals, state and county authorities caved, unable to enforce the blockades that lead to state lands near the red zone established by the U.S. Forest Service. On May 18, after much ado, the fury of the underworld came unleashed in a catastrophic explosion and landslide unprecedented in modern history. Thankfully, only 57 people perished in the blast, a remarkably small number given the immensity of the event. Still, had the warnings been headed, and decisive political response based on the voices of the scientists been followed, the lives of timber crews and tree planters, weekend campers, and the curious onlookers who ventured into restricted areas might have been spared.