A Weekend with a Volcano

Each of us stands at one unique spot in the universe, at one moment in the expanse of time, holding a blank sheet of paper.

This is where we begin.

-Peter Turchi

Spence here: In the early morning there was calm. The clouds, reflected in the waters, greyed then burned away, as fish jumped, making tiny wakes at the shore. Ravens and Red-Winged Blackbirds called out, the only noise for miles. The lake, perfect glass to row about, I thought. This is how I started my day, camping at Merrill Lake, on the west side of Mount Saint Helens. Billy and I had slept well in the tent, strange for us, as we are generally light sleepers at home and away, and we rose early to greet the smell of summer, now fully upon us.

We spent days hiking around Mt. St. Helens in a curious, twisty and frontal state of mind—trees filled with meaning, rocks and lichens our friends—owls called after the campfire extinguished. Billy’s sister and her girlfriend joined us on this adventure and we celebrated the full moon of May, pouring out drinks for the various deities and entities one believes in on this physical dirt. We explored canyons and caves and tubes, suspension bridges and a dog’s willingness to go along with apes’ ridiculous plans.

A highlight, besides great company, great food, fun beverages, great weather and a beautiful camp, was our hike to Goat Marsh. Billy and I both saw the little trail on the map, an off-shoot of the Kalama Snow Trail at the end of our camp road and it beckoned. Now one of my top five favorite places of all time, Goat Marsh lent views of Mt. St. Helens, old Douglas Firs, many birds, salamanders, frogs and small children catching even smaller trout with bigger smiles. Around the bend of the trail, a homemade sign said “James Dunbar, Nov. 6th, 2003”. I assumed a memorial gesture to a person who either loved Goat Marsh, contributed to its protection and/or research (the acres there are designated as a research area) or perhaps just a fisherman who loved the mountain.

I couldn’t find anything online about James Dunbar, but did yield however, an amazing story of a “Bigfoot” encounter  and how Ape Canyon, a long stretch of rock heading up the South Easterly slope of Mt. St. Helens, got its name. Apparently, in 1924, some prospectors, after mining their claim for the day, retreated to their cabin for the night. Some members of the four-man party were concerned, as they had been seeing 19” footprints in the woods near their cabin and had heard strange thumping noises, accompanied with whistling and screeching in the evenings.  Other members of the group were very excited about the wealth of their claim and wanted to stay on to further their fortune.  They decided to leave in the morning; the braver ones could come back another day. According to interviews and an article on BigfootEncounters.com, around midnight, their camp was “attacked” by “large ape-like creatures”. The attack on the cabin, included rock throwing, jumping on the roof, trying to break through the walls (the cabin did not have any windows) and breaking in the door. At first light, the attacks ceased and the prospectors emerged from their cabin to see one of the creatures standing about 80 feet away. One person shot at the creature, killing it and sending it over a 400 foot cliff, into the canyon. The miners then rushed through the woods out to their truck and sped off to town. They were interviewed by local papers after word got around of the incident, but no evidence was ever found, let alone any ape-like creatures and the cabin eventually burnt down. According to the USFS, the event was a hoax played by young boy scouts, and was subsequently disproved. I still like to believe it, as I still like to think there is a Little Prince taking care of a volcano on his planet.

Billy and I did hear large screeching/calling types of sounds in the middle of the night one night—something like a flight of cranes, but indistinguishable.  Hmm. The stories we tell each other and ourselves are always true if we believe them.

Billy here. Spending a few days near the slopes of the most recently erupted volcano helped me remember how ephemeral even the oldest relics of humankind really are. The paradigm seems to be that civilization as we know it has been happening continuously in a hierarchical evolution and we are the apex of it. Not only that, but that how things are now will continue to grow in a stable fashion and the systems we have put into place will be there indefinitely, changing only to grow in size and value. Yet, especially here in the United States, we are so young a culture, in our teens at best, that we forget that things ebb and flow, that things decay and die. A mountain range may have once been the bottom of the ocean, a desert once a jungle, and the volcanoes in our backyard are only napping, waiting to bring fire and ash to our cities.

On July 16, 1994 my life changed entirely as I watched the first fragment of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slam into Jupiter through my telescope and leave a grey scar in its atmosphere the size of the planet Earth. The largest fragment hit two days later with the force of 6 megatons of TNT, equivalent to 600 times the world’s nuclear stockpile. In addition to spawning multiple summer blockbusters about comet apocalypses (as well as sparking a lifelong obsession with astronomy in me), the event reminded all of us briefly that this universe is alive, very dynamic, and not necessarily as stable as we would like to believe.

On the planetary scale, life itself flourishes between cold periods in interglacial periods of warmth. The last glacial period ended about 15,000 years ago, which sparked the subsequent growth of humanity and its civilizations. In the grand scheme of things, this warm period of the flourishing of humanity, the recent Holocene, was a mere blip in time. At the beginning of the Holocene period, sea levels rose over 100 feet. Here we have the origin of the legends of Atlantis and Tir fa Tonn, the Lands Under Waves.

Seeing the landscapes of our local volcano, the forests swept under by lava and ash, I am reminded once again that this is all very temporary. For some reason, this comforts me immensely and helps me feel small in an unfathomably large and complex universe, in the same way that looking at the night sky does. The Earth was not always covered in superhighways, dams and strip malls. In fact, only 75 years have passed since the first superhighway was built in the United States. Compared to the roughly 3.55 billion years that life has existed on the planet, this means that life is 47.3 million times older than our current high speed regime. According to the UCSB Science Line website: “The fossil record shows that roughly every 130 million years, most of the species alive on Earth are wiped out fairly suddenly.” We might have 65 million more years, or not…but if this is fact is true, life on Earth and all of its turnings of evolution, has evolved for millions of years and been wiped out about 27 times already. This could happen 27 more times over the lifetime of Earth herself.

Older cultures remember that we are living in balance and that all we have is our daily renewals. Song and dance is a prayer that the Sun will still rise and the Moon will still give the Ocean waves. Every day thanks are offered for the gifts of love and food we give and receive. Because tomorrow the sea may take us all home and make oil of our bones.

How do you know that any person you encounter isn’t a god?How do you know that Hermes isn’t walking through your doorway right now? You don’t, and because of that, it’s incumbent on you to live with the possibility that sacredness – that which is beyond human – is knocking on your door. You have to behave with proper respect toward whatever comes into your home, your life. The Greeks call it xenia – the culture of kindness to the stranger. It’s not done out of a moral sense but because you recognize your place in the world, and the brevity of life, and the value of the people you meet.
– David Mason

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