Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Purple Mountains Majesty

Twenty-five years ago today. It's amazing to thing that I'm now old enough to reflect on my memories of a historic event that happened that long ago. Of course, here in the Pacific Northwest, history is divided into Before Mt. St. Helens and After Mt. St. Helens.

I was living on the fringes of the region at the time, an 11-year-old about to finish 6th grade in the small town of Filer, Idaho. I had a passing interest in the new leading up to the eruption, since I had family in Portland, and the summer camp facilities owned by the denomination in which my father pastored (Camp Lackamas, at that time owned by the Northwest District of the Missionary Church) lay between PDX and the volcano. And of course, everyone was watching to see if they could get Harry Truman down from his cabin at Spirit Lake before the eruption. they didn't. He refused to budge, and he died on his own terms.

When Mt. St. Helens erupted, it pulverized a cubic mile of mountain in seconds. The day after the mountain blew, the sky turned blood red in Filer from all the ash in the air, but we received almost none of it on the ground. Months later, I would visit Lackamas and find a good half inch of the stuff on everything. We swept it up and I kept a small amount in a film jar, but lost that years ago, For a long time, you could buy small vials of ash, and even glass ornaments blown from ash that had been collected and reheated, in just about any souvenir shop in the region.

The mountain became an intrinsic part of our culture -- especially in Washington, but throughout the region in general. In school, they showed us the film "Keeper of the Fire", which was about Mt. St. Helens, and which recounted a local Native American myth about the mountain. In the myth, there were two great warriors of a local tribe who both fell in love with the same woman -- the beautiful maiden who tended the tribe's fire. They both wanted her for their own, and so they fought for her. Their fight was so violent, and lasted so long, that it angered the gods, who put a curse on all three. They turned all three into mountains, with one of the warriors on either side of the maiden, where both could see her but neither could reach her. The two warriors are Mt. Adams in Washington and Mt. Hood in Oregon, and the maiden is Mt. St. Helens -- the Keeper of the Fire.

The biggest way in which Mt. St. Helens changed the region, though, is probably the way it changed how we look at our mountains. We have always loved the Cascades, and they are one of the features, along with the Pacific Ocean, that most define our region and our climate. They are beautiful mountains, with plenty of snow-capped peaks and vast foothills, and while there are higher ranged and more rugged ranges in North America, few if any are greener or more varied.

But before St. Helens, few people in this region, apart from geologists, paid much attention to their geological history. Now, we have been made startlingly aware of just how these mountains we love were formed. And we view them all a little differently. At least three peaks, including one within 100 miles of where I sit typing this, have the potential for erupting in my lifetime. Oregon's only National Park, Crater Lake, was formed by the eruption of a Cascade volcano. Now, when we look at the Three Sisters or Hood or Rainier, we are reminded just how dangerous and powerful these mountains are.

And I, for one, think it makes them all the more beautiful.