In late March 1980, while walking through the cabin of a passenger ship on the Salish Sea, I noticed a newspaper on a table and stopped in my tracks, surprised by a dramatic photograph under a headline reporting a small eruption on the summit of Mount St. Helens. I was returning from a college work week at a Young Life camp in British Columbia. The eruption on March 27 was the first indication that Mount St. Helens had awakened after its last eruption in 1857.

Later, on the top deck of the ship, I joined some other students gathered around two guitar players. They were singing “God, Make Us Your Family” by The Fisherfolk—a rousing, inspiring chorus and haunting, evocative verses about God’s restoration of the earth and the family of all mankind. I felt somber and thoughtful, standing on the upper deck in the dark as we passed under the lights of the Lion’s Gate Bridge along the downtown Vancouver waterfront.

Everyone in the Pacific Northwest knew that they lived near volcanos. Mount Hood, Mount Rainier, and Mount Baker are prominent and stunning features on the horizons of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. But no one (except geologists) spent any time thinking about what their presence really meant. They were supposed to be extinct, weren’t they?

Now in the global COVID-19 pandemic, a question that seemed distant and perhaps irrelevant when everything was going well for us has risen to the surface—where is God in all of this anyway?

The eruption

Everyone in the region remembers where they were when the unthinkable happened on a Sunday morning, May 18, 1980. I was in Bridle Trails State Park, a large forested park in Bellevue, Washington, again working for Young Life. I stood in the quiet forest with other staff waiting to start an orienteering course. Suddenly we heard this mysterious and massive BOOM at 8:32 a.m. like a cannon shot. A few of us joked, “Maybe Mount St. Helens blew up!” We found out later that day that it was indeed Mount St. Helens erupting 100 miles south.

After our course finished, we drove to Seattle for another Young Life session, listening to the radio’s blizzard of breaking news about the eruption, which in a matter of hours had basically shut down the entire state. The Interstate 5 freeway to the south was closed at the Toutle River Bridge, which was in imminent danger of being washed away by lahars—torrents of melted glaciers and snowfields mixed with enormous amounts of volcanic ash, rock, and downed trees. The lahars had blown out every other bridge on the river from the mountain to the freeway.

Later that day, the flood of ash-laden meltwater reached the Columbia River and shut down all shipping traffic from Portland, Oregon (and upriver ports), to the Pacific Ocean. The mountain passes to the east were closed due to zero-visibility conditions and black skies at midday due to falling volcanic ash. At our afternoon session, some the staff at the training weekend who had traveled from Oregon and Eastern Washington discovered they were now stranded, unable to return home to Yakima and Portland. As they say, then and now, we were all in uncharted territory.

The initial blast event resulted in impressive destruction. It was triggered by an earthquake, which caused the north side of the mountain to collapse in the largest landslide (two billion tons of rock, glacial ice, and snow) ever recorded. This then released gases, steam, and lava from below in an enormous blast, sending an ash cloud 12 miles into the sky. Winds blew the ash plume east, and significant ash fell on Eastern Washington.

In coming days, the ash cloud would travel across the entire United States, eventually circling the globe. The top 1,300 feet of the mountain were lost, replaced by an enormous crater that opened to the north. Fifty-seven people were killed, 200 homes were damaged or destroyed, and 27 bridges were taken out by the debris flowing down the Toutle River valley. The largest lahar filled the floor of the river valley for 14 miles downstream to an average depth of 150 feet. Hot, hurricane-force (pyroclastic) winds carrying rock debris flattened 143 square miles of forest in a large arc north of the volcano, and an additional 42 square miles of forest was killed with the dead trees left standing upright. A large area at the base of volcano was turned into a plain of pumice rock. Spirit Lake, a deep, pristine, cold-water lake was filled with hot ash and mud, its surface covered with a raft of dead trees.

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Translation help

Several years ago, I found the gravestone of the poet Denise Levertov (1923–1997) in Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle while attending the funeral of a close friend and rector of my former church. After the service, I looked up Levertov online and read several books of her poetry. Her words in the poem “Immersion” struck me:

There is anger abroad in the world, a numb thunder,
because of God’s silence. But how naïve,
to keep wanting words we could speak ourselves,
English, Urdu, Tagalog, the French of Tours,
the French of Haiti …

It concludes:

God’s abstention is only from human dialects. The holy voice
utters its woe and glory in myriad musics, in signs and portents.
Our own words are for us to speak, a way to ask and to answer.

Some years later, I bought another of Levertov’s books. In it, the essay “Janus” recounts an evocative memory when she and several neighbor girls trespass onto the grounds of an apparently abandoned house. Perched atop a garden’s brick wall, they are struck with awe by a flowering tree. The caretaker of the house runs out of the house and yells at them to leave. She reflects: “Wasn’t it one of the earliest intimations of how close to one another are beauty and terror, how intimately related?”

The words fear, dread, and awe, when studied for their modern and archaic meanings, point to a fusion of terror and being wonder-struck with awe—two sides of the same coin. Perhaps this is why every time angels appear in the Bible, they preface their message with “Do not be afraid!”

The aftermath

Ten days after the eruption, the first three scientists from the US Forest Service arrived at the blast zone by helicopter. They knew the event would be an unequaled chance to document the return of life after a major disturbance. Their general expectations were that the destruction would be total: Trees, plants, and animals would not return to the site for perhaps decades or centuries, and initial colonization of the blast zone would consist of invasive species coming in from the edges of the zone. Their assumptions were proved wrong almost immediately:

So it was that [ecologist Jerry] Franklin opened the helicopter’s side door and hopped out. His boots sent up little puffs of ash when they hit the ground. He glanced down, but instead of the gray he expected, he saw a bit of green poking up next to him. He knelt. It was a plant shoot, maybe 2 or 3 inches tall. ‘I’ll be damned,’ Franklin thought. It was Chamaenerion angustifolium, a plant much more widely known by its common name, fireweed.

As Franklin discovered, some of the first plants to come back were fireweed and pearly everlasting, which grew back rapidly from underground rhizome-like root systems that survived the blast. In his new book about the eruption, Eric Wagner writes that in England, fireweed is called rosebay willowherb or bombweed because it was the first plant to colonize the blast zones in London after the Blitz. Another group of plants to return quickly to Mount St. Helens was legumes such as lupines and low-growing red alders, which have nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their root systems, allowing them to colonize the nutrient-poor tephra (fine volcanic ash) deposits.

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These “early-successional” plants were the first stage in a series of relatively transient ecosystems that will ultimately give way to the restoration of a conifer forest “climax community” similar to what existed before the eruption. The process is called “succession” by ecologists. Return of old-growth forests will take centuries—if not interrupted by new volcanic events.

This was the just the start of extensive research into the eruption’s effects that continue today. Mount St. Helens has become the most studied volcano in the world. The results of studies at the site have changed the science of ecology, now that we know life returns to a highly disturbed area in diverse and unexpected ways. In another line of Levertov’s poem, she sees God’s voice in “the poor grass returning after drought, timid, persistent.” Not unlike Franklin’s fireweed growing in volcanic ash.

Our current crises

The COVID-19 pandemic and a historic economic collapse, like flash photographs—brightly illuminate and expose everything and everyone, revealing realities we rarely care to think about: food supply lines supported by low-paid workers in poor conditions; injustices of health care access; salary disparities; the vulnerabilities of immigrants and the homeless; conditions in nursing homes that spread disease; and on and on. The effects of these intertwined crises also relate to how we approach the underlying and accelerating global climate change. But perhaps God is speaking to us in this current emergency in the manner Levertov articulated: “The holy voice utters its woe and glory in myriad musics, in signs and portents.”

Since the end of February, we have seen the heroic and inspiring stories of medical professionals and ordinary people responding to the pandemic—treating COVID-19 patients, sewing face masks, distributing food from closed schools, shopping for elderly neighbors—the very kinds of selfless actions documented by Rebecca Solnit in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Solnit describes the aftermath of several famous disasters, including the great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906; the London Blitz in 1940-41; the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City; and Hurricane Katrina in late 2005. She discovered in her research that most people, contrary to expectations, when confronted with disaster, embrace it with a kind of joy and pitch in to improvise and help the victims and themselves survive and recover—like plants springing from ash.

Also in recent weeks, remarkable occurrences in nature have resulted from essentially the whole world being at a standstill. As Levertov writes: “the unearned retrieval of blessings lost forever”—yet another word from God? Significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions have been reported in every nation. Air quality has dramatically improved in all the world’s most polluted cities: Delhi, Beijing, and Los Angeles. Residents in Northern India are seeing the Himalayan Mountains on the horizon for the first time in decades. Wild animals have been returning to areas normally crowded with tourists—bears appearing in Yosemite Valley, lions in South Africa taking naps on roads. In the Pacific Northwest, orcas, dolphins and whales have returned to waters usually transited by freighters, tankers and cruise ships, benefiting from the drop in underwater noise. The canals of Venice have become clear and filled with marine life.

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The entire world has borne witness to these glories, as Levertov might say. Could it be that God speaks—reminding us that our collective actions affect both human civilization and the natural world for good or for ill? How can we play a role in the culmination of God’s kingdom—a civilization more equitable, just, and prosperous for both humans and nature? We can reimagine, rethink and restructure our economy, energy sources, natural resource utilization, and more. In the words of the song I heard on that evening 40 years ago, “Let the prayer of our hearts daily be: God, make us your family.”

Gerald Erickson is a marine scientist and writer in the Seattle area. His outlook on life has been formed from being present on the interfaces between his ecumenical Christian faith, science, and the arts.