In the spring of 1980 Mount St. Helens, dormant for 120 years, woke up with the largest volcanic eruption in 100 years in North America. The explosion left behind a lunar landscape that stretched over hundreds of thousands of acres and wiped out all life in an area of 200 square miles. Nearby Spirit Lake was choked with debris, raising its bed more than 200 feet. Due to the unexpected and unimaginable devastation and because Mount St. Helens is one of nearly 500 volcanos in the Pacific Ring of Fire, studying the volcano became scientists’ top priority. Massive effort went into discovering all that the mountain could tell, seismology equipment graphing every minute rumble for patterns that could help predict future activity. Within weeks, when the toxic clouds of steam cleared, seismologists were on the ground, as close as possible to the crater.
From low flying helicopters every inch of ground was surveyed for signs of life. Nothing for three months, then one day in a vast field of grey ash eight miles from the crater a small mound of brown disturbed soil. Returning on foot, biologists discovered a pocket gopher. Because they live underground protected by soil, some would have survived, and here was this little guy busy doing reconstruction –work familiar, though seldom appreciated, in our urban gardens. In the days that followed more gophers were spotted. All bent on their task of burrowing out from beneath feet of ash.
The following spring after snows had receded and helicopter searches for life once again resumed, a clump of color was spotted four miles from the crater in the pumice plain where all life had been extinguished. There, in full bloom, was a single plant of prairie lupine –the first sign of new life in a year. Like the gopher, the prairie lupine is a pioneering species especially equipped to survive and even to thrive in conditions impossible for others. Within a few years gophers had moved into the pumice plain, lupines providing their food while gophers enriched the pumice by burrowing their way through the ash, mixing in fresh soil and helping new plants to spread.
So too Spirit Lake had fallen into toxic swoon. Smothered by debris and choked by deadly gases, it had suffered an explosion of deadly bacteria that had rapidly consumed all oxygen, finishing off all air-breathing life: fish, amphibians and insects. For three years there was nothing, the lake essentially dead. Then, as the debris settled and sunlight improved, a water sample showed the return of phytoplankton, microscopic plants that turn sunlight into oxygen. They are the basic building blocks of aquatic life –and they had been brought in by birds or blown in by the wind.
In time, as the lupines and other scrubby plants increased –creating islands of vegetation in the mounds of turned-over soil provided by gophers– the elk returned. In their travels their hooves collapsed gopher tunnels, in turn creating cool safe havens for small amphibians to take hold and replenish the lake.
This is the web of life, our sacred Mother Earth resplendent in her magnificence. Every being, seen or unseen, mammoth or infinitesimal, dependent on and nourishing every other. If ever we have needed to remember we are all in this together, needing all of our teammates onboard, it is now…
Mount St. Helens – Back from the Dead
And here the web of life at work in the nuclear-ravaged area of Chernobyl…