A pandemic in spring comes with long rainy days. But this evening the clouds pull back so I grab my mask and rush outside with my dog for a walk in an unusually brilliant bit of sunshine. There in my yard behind dry day lily plants are two daffodils and a purple flower I don’t remember planting. A sudden aura of joy flows through and around me and transports me to a time forty years ago, thousands of miles away.


It was a rare sunny day, a mid-May Sunday in Portland, Oregon. We had ridden our bikes west on Killingsworth for a picnic brunch near the Willamette River, oblivious of all but blue sky and water. Riding back home we came round a corner, looked up, and were stunned to see a giant billowing plume of ash towering into the sky from fifty miles away. Later we learned it had been there all morning, but we hadn’t noticed.


We watched from our tiny balcony all afternoon and by morning the ice-cream-cone-shaped mountain we always enjoyed seeing between the trees was just – gone. It was a flattened butte. We learned that the explosion instantly erased everything for eight miles. Melting snow became flooding rapids, turning virgin old-growth trees into draglines that flattened 230 square miles of vegetation, two hundred buildings, miles of roads and bridges, agricultural land, nests, dens, killing herds of deer and elk, and 57 humans.


The ash drifted eastward creating whiteouts in towns and on farms. Within a week, another explosion and a shift in wind patterns brought a heavy dusting of toxic volcanic ash to Portland. With every step a cloud of of white enveloped people, threatened lungs, clogged machines and sewers. Cars were banned, schools were closed, everyone wore masks. The ash had to be hauled away, and fast. Signs were posted all over town: “No Parking. Ash Removal.”


Like others, I grieved for the mountain, the old-growth trees, the people, the wildlife, the plants, now buried under 300 feet of hot ash. The moonscape that had been Mount St. Helens gave rise to a sense of hopelessness. Was life, as we knew it, over for the mountain?


Then one day, two years later, a young ecologist spotted a single flower pushing through the ash. That small dwarf purple lupine became an ecosystem. Its legumes produced soil nitrogen and bird wings brought nitrogen-seeking seeds. Little plants grew. And they decayed and enriched the soil. And insects came and decayed and enriched the soil, and new plants grew and rodents returned. And foxes. And elk.


A tug on the leash brings me back to the present. My dog sniffs at the purple flower then pulls me into another patch of warm evening sun.



Carolyn Howe lived in Portland from 1978 through summer 1980, and was there when Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. She is Associate Professor Emerita at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.