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Today, the ridge overlooking the snow-covered northern face of Mount St. Helens is dotted with small brush, lichen and wild grass. Chipmunks dart between the rocks. Tourists take photos to post later on their Facebook profiles. But 34 years ago, the place where I stand was buried by a boiling mudslide, smothered by pumice and superheated rock and cloaked in a cloud of choking ash. As striking as the barren foothills of the mountain are, I’m more surprised by the recovery here — by the small trees and bushes that have a foothold in the wasteland.
I feel small as I peer up into the clouds that hide the jagged mouth of the crater. The top third of the volcano was blasted off by the force of the explosion. Boulders flew miles. An entire forest was leveled in a matter of seconds, their strong trunks snapped like balsa wood. If I was standing here when the bomb went off, I would be vaporized. The giant is sleeping now, but I know that deep in the heart of the mountain, ancient forces are building up. Magma is rising from the depths of the Earth, building a dome in the caldera. Someday, it will rain fire here again.
The devastation is difficult to put into words. And yet there is something beautiful about the destruction that stretches for miles around. There is more to be seen here than the Northwest’s youngest and most famous volcano. The landscape reminds us that humanity is not the most powerful force in the world. We only exist at the mercy of a planet that could bury us in lava with little warning. However, Mount St. Helens is not only a place of death. It is a cradle for new life. Hardy saplings are taking root in the blast zone. The volcano that burned and sterilized a centuries old forest provides nutrient-rich soil to feed the new forest.
Mount St. Helens impresses on me the cyclical nature of time and events. Long before we descended from the trees, geologic forces of creation and destruction were in motion. Long after we’re gone, it will continue. Volcanoes, fires and earthquakes will erase old life to make way for new life. Mount St. Helens will awaken and when it does, I hope that I’m far, far away.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. He has spent much of his life tempting fate by living in close proximity to volcanoes, from the San Francisco Peaks to Mount Rainier. You can comment below or follow him on Twitter.