So much lupine blooms
you’d swear the mountain shouts in violet,
whispers in willow. Where windows framed the view,
ash swaddles spiders, warblers, and gophers.
Even these rocks under our boots
refuse to sink.
a numberless flock of logs float the lake,
jostling and knocking from one shore to the other
according to wind, transparency
they cannot help but believe in.
Notes from Derek Sheffield’s journal during his weeklong residency at Mount St. Helens. He and 11 other writers accompanied more than 100 scientists in July to document the mountain’s rebirth 30 years after the blast.
• Terms important to understanding the story of St. Helens: refugia, tephra, pyroclastic flow, thermal regimes, disturbance ecology, disturbance agents, gopher activity, spider rain (the arrival of wind-borne spiders to the Pumice Plain).
• July 23rd, checking nest sites on the Pumice Plain with Elise Larsen, the ornithologist from the Univ. of Maryland: the image of the two 3-day-old willow flycatcher chicks — cherry, translucent skin — bulging dark eyes still closed, lying side by side facing the mountain in a tilted nest four feet high in a stand of willows. Warm in the protective shade, their nest swaying slightly at the touch of wind, then at my touch. Hanging there. Precarious life, blasted stone and ash all around them, gray braids of snowmelt, above them the lava dome steaming.
• There’s a change of aesthetics that takes place in appreciating this blasted landscape. Call it “early succession” versus the “late succession” of “old-growth.” Like what happens when west-siders move east and learn to appreciate the beauty of the shrub-steppe. The desert has its own beauty just like this land of catastrophe.
• Shortly after the 1980 eruption, some reporters flew over the area, and one pointed from the helicopter, saying, “Look at the devastation!” Another said, “We’re not over the mountain yet. That’s a Weyerhaeuser clear-cut.”
• Elizabeth Dodd stuns us with this realization: “I’m standing on a landscape so young it could be my child.” That’s something, especially in the face of global warming. What kind of legacy will we leave? Here, in this monument, is life returning — without us. See Alan Weisman’s book, The World Without Us.
• Another writer says, “Looking at all this destruction … it’s a relief to know that for once we’re not to blame.”
WENATCHEE — The striking contrast of Mount St. Helens — the vibrant green life against ashen gray monotone — makes for good poetry, especially when you’ve got scientists on hand to explain it all.
Wenatchee Valley College professor Derek Sheffield is trying to intertwine the two disciplines in his latest works, inspired by a weeklong residency on the mountain in July.
Sheffield traveled with 11 other notable writers and more than 100 scientists on the 30-year anniversary of the St. Helens eruption. The massive study was a “science pulse,” coordinated by Oregon State University, and the U.S. Forest Service, which the Mount St. Helens Institute coordinates every five or 10 years.
“It was really a study in gray,” Sheffield said. “The shapes were so painterly to me. The snow was dusted with ash. The rocks, the trees, everything was touched by the ash.”
The local poet spent the first day in a van headed up the mountain.
The van stopped every few miles at research stations where scientists would explain their work to the group of writers.
“It was a dunk in pumice and ash and Latin binomials,” Sheffield said with a laugh. He described the lineup of scientists as the “Academy Awards” of ecology — the folks who wrote his favorite guide books. Their explanations of the surprise relationships behind the mountain’s rebirth was as interesting as the landscape itself, he said.
“I didn’t want to just focus on the pretty parts of the pictures, but to use the science for a broader and deeper understanding, and to be moved creatively by the understanding of the web of life and renewal,” Sheffield said.
As the writers hiked around Spirit Lake, they noticed a white mat of rotting wood that eerily floats from one shore to the other, like a ghost.
“It made all of us think of bones,” he said.
A closer look revealed plants are beginning to grow on the floating mass, including trees 6 feet tall.
Above the lake, a constant white plume hovers over Mount St. Helens like smoke. Steam was everyone’s guess, until a scientist said otherwise, Sheffield said. Constant rock fall in the crater kicked up the ash.
“It looked like a big pot boiling,” he said. “You could barely see it with the naked eye.”
The 1980 eruption sent a 600-degree blast of air through the forests, killing trees instantly. The ashen snags are called the “standing dead,” Sheffield said. Underneath, Douglas fir seedlings have pushed through the ash and are slowly overtaking the dead.
A purple shock of wild lupine spread across the hillsides, breaking up the gray. The survivor plant is the first to re-establish itself in the barren landscape. Lupine is a nitrogen-fixer. It helps the soil recoup some of its nutrients and supports other plants’ reintroduction to the area.
“I’ve never seen so much lupine in one place,” Sheffield said. “It spread over an incredibly wide expanse of land, acres and acres of lupine. It covered entire slopes.”
Outside the National Volcanic Monument, logging companies salvaged downed timber, arguing that the dead forests created a fire and infestation hazard. Nature proved that theory wrong.
Inside the barrier, the ash acted as a fire retardant and natural pesticide, like the clay orchardists spray on fruit trees.
Sheffield remembers watching the ash snowing outside from the back seat of his parents’ car. He was 11, on a road trip from Portland to Gig Harbor. Thirty years later, as he and the other writers hiked across the blast zone, the director of the Mount St. Helens Institute told them stories of people who barely escaped with their lives.
One family refused to heed the blast warnings until their son’s braces started tingling from the coming eruption. Another young couple were camping along the river when a mudslide tore through the valley. The two survived by riding on logs to stay afloat. When one would fall off, the other would pull the one back up.
“They’re part of the story of the mountain,” Sheffield said.
On the last day, the group of writers shared their notes and ideas for future prose and poetry. The Oregon State University Press will publish a compilation of their work in a few years.
One New York writer lived a few blocks from the Twin Towers when they collapsed in the 9/11 attacks.
“She was already thinking of the parallels of catastrophe and renewal between here and there,” he said.
As a girl, Christine Colasurdo spent every summer working at Spirit Lake and living at the family cabin. She writes about the experience of coming back to a landscape she knew so intimately growing up.
“There are people who never came back because it’s too heartbreaking,” Sheffield said.
Another writer, Elizabeth Dodd, commented that the 30-year-old landscape was young enough to be her child.
As for Sheffield, he’s drawing on the relationship between the science, stories and rich imagery he witnessed.
He said his biggest challenge is to produce poetry that rises to the level of the other writers he traveled with, many of whom are his literary heroes.
“I want to give them the best I got,” Sheffield said. “It’s not all about what I want to do or aim to do. It’s a process and I’ve got to go through that process.”
Rachel Schleif: 664-7139