In 2018, I published a book about some penguins in Argentina that are near and dear to my heart, and as a result I did a number of book talks hither and yon. Once people had run out of questions about the penguins during the Q&As, someone would often ask what else I was working on.
“I’m writing a book about Mount St. Helens,” I would say.
“Oh, interesting,” the person would say, and then they would pause. “So what are you going to say about it that’s new?”
“Umm…” I would say. At that point I was two years into my research for the book that ultimately became After the Blast: The Ecological Recovery of Mount St. Helens. I was driving out to Mount St. Helens as often as I could, talking to the hordes of scientists who either worked there or had worked there in the past, reading dozens of their books and papers about the ways life around the mountain had responded to the 1980 eruption. All the information was new, at least to me, and I was struggling to wrap my head around it. As such, it was all I could do not to shoot a dirty look at the questioner and say something tart.
But I also understood where they were coming from. Truth be told, I had asked the same question myself. I grew up in Oregon a few hours from Mount St. Helens, and was familiar with the standard tale of the eruption, which went something like: Mount St. Helens erupted and left a moonscape behind, but then life came back more quickly than anyone expected. All of this had made me a little hesitant at first to pursue the project. I wondered whether I had anything new to say about a space already so well known.
Once I started reading and talking to folks, though, it was soon clear to me just how mistaken I had been to assume everything worth knowing about Mount St. Helens was known. Yes, life had come back more quickly than anyone expected. But just how it came back was fascinating, and full of fun, quirky details—of spiders ballooning into the blast area within hours of the eruption, of toads and fish that survived because they were drifting in icebound lakes, of a deep snowpack that was a savior for plants in one area but a killer in another, of flowers that showed up in the middle of desolate plains, giving them color. I loved learning all those little stories embedded within the one larger tale.
Exploring the relationship between people and Mount St. Helens was eye-opening as well; for notice how people are kind of left out of that standard tale. But our fingerprints are all over the landscape. Within weeks of the eruption, people were clamoring to replant large swaths of the landscape with thousands of fir seedlings. In other places, people scattered tons of flower and grass seed from helicopters in an effort to prevent erosion. (It didn’t really work, for what it’s worth.) Everyone was doing what they thought was best—some trying to reassert the human hand over the land, others arguing to let life find its own way. All those actions would help shape the biological community that thousands of visitors see when they go to the mountain. The blast area today is a reflection of those competing desires: to intervene and sculpt, to step back and watch.
Overall, the main thing I learned while writing this book was the degree to which the landscape at Mount St. Helens is still very much alive. I feel lucky to have been able to spend so much time on the mountain, hiking all over it with scientists who could reveal its beauty to me and explain it. They could not stop talking about how dynamic the environment was. Even now, forty years after the 1980 eruption—as I am writing these words—the landscape is continuing to change in unexpected ways. So what’s new at Mount St. Helens? Read the book and find out just how much!
Eric Wagner earned a PhD in biology from the University of Washington, writes regularly about animals and the environment, and is author of Penguins in the Desert and coauthor of Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish. He climbs Mount St. Helens annually. After the Blast: The Ecological Recovery of Mount St. Helens is available now. Now through May 15th, all University of Washington Press titles are 40% off on our website.