What a Difference that Makes
Only twelve miles separate two of the most amazing ecosystems I have been privileged to visit. They could not be more different. One is lush and damp and perpetually shaded. The other hot, exposed, and wind buffeted. In one, I feel tall and outstanding, as in standing out in a field. In the other, I am small and humbled by the bounty of life. In one, greens and browns provide a calming palette. In the other, purple, red, yellow, and orange pop the spectrum of gray and tawny.
The northern of the two locations—the one I visit first—is a relatively small pocket of old growth forest along a creek at the bottom of a V-shaped, forested valley slightly northeast of Mount St. Helens. Outside the blast zone of the 1980 eruption, it somehow survived the axe and the saw that took down most of the surrounding forest. It is one of the most beautiful groves I have seen. Douglas firs so tall that all I can see are the wide, straight trunks rising up and up and disappearing into a canopy that pierces the sky. Measuring one, it requires five spans of my arms to circumference it. Another, less than two feet away, also has a ten foot diameter. I feel like I am sandwiched between the legs of a giant, akin to Gulliver in Brobdingnag, Jonathan Swift’s fictional land that just happens to be pretty close to where I was standing.
Many of the monstrous trees have succumbed to storms, old age, or gravity, (or all three) and toppled over, beginning life anew as nurse logs. Growing out of the massive root ball of one Douglas fir is a 12-inch-diameter western hemlock, its roots snaking ten feet to the ground. Nearby, on the four-foot-wide log, a larger hemlock is sweatered with moss and further along are dozens more, smaller trees biding their time as the ongoing story of succession plays out. My favorite born-again tree, though, is a western red cedar that has dammed a small creek and is now ribboned by a thin crest of oxalis and fern. Behind the nurse log, a small, sediment-filled pond dotted with skunk cabbage and moss-covered branches and trees has formed.
As I sit and watch this lovely scene of verdure, I am completely enchanted. No bugs. Air clean and refreshing. Perfect temperature in the deep shade. The soft, shimmering sound of water. A bonanza of life to contemplate. Give me the time and I’d be happy mouldering here, returning myself to the earth.
At the southern location, on the Pumice Plain, directly in front of the crater of the volcano, there are bugs and it is hot with no shade, but I am also thrilled to be here, in one of the planet’s youngest ecosystems. Only 42 years ago, after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, this area was a moonscape of the gray lifeless smithereens of the exploded mountain. Now, it’s hard to step anywhere without tredding on a plant.
All around me, purply-blue lupines carpet the terrain; they were the first plants to return to the blast zone. Poking out of the sea of blue are brilliant red Castilleja, one of my favorite plant names to say: “Casti-ley-HA”; white dots of yarrow and pearly everlasting; splashes of yellow asters; and the occasional shrub or two. As I sit near one patch of flowers, bumblebees and flies regularly shoot by in a buzzing whirr. (Where are they going in such a hurry?) Their high speed contrasts with the bouncing flight of western tailed blue and Lorquin’s admiral butterflies bopping from flower to flower. The tallest plants (about 20 feet) are the noble firs, many adorned with clusters of new cones, and Douglas firs, slight and wispy compared to the ones I visited a few hours earlier and yet equally as reaffirming of life.
My favorite spots on the Pumice Plain are the waterways that carve narrow gullies. Nourished by the water, great stands of alders and willows form impenetrable thickets that one can only cross via a trail. Within them, it is cool and shaded; the water is so cold I can leave my hands in only for a few seconds. The trees are tall enough that deep within them, I lose sight of the sky and almost feel transported back to the confines of the old growth forest, except here I don’t feel the calming grace of the woods. The branches are too scratchy, the route too claustrophobic.
I have been fortunate to hike out into the Pumice Plain several times over the past twenty years. Each time I am stunned by how plants and animals have recolonized the area. I always see something new: elk poop, moss glistening silver and green from a recent rain, a herd of 35 to 40 goats (which crossed a ridge above me on this trip), gopher trails, a baseball-sized yellowjacket nest, and the eight-foot-long roots of a lupine (unearthed by scientists I was with who study microbial communities), revealing that yet another world remains invisible to me under the ground surface. Such a surfeit of life always makes me rejoice.
Only twelve miles separates the Pumice Plain from the old growth trees. Moving between the two locations, I feel I am witness to the endless loop of the ecological story of Mount St. Helens. A feature such as the Pumice Plain has regularly reappeared during the mountain’s numerous eruptions in the past 15,000 years. With time, the devastated areas recovered and developed a new community of life, eventually maturing into an ecosystem with centuries-old trees, like the ones I saw, which could be pushing toward 700 to 800 years old. And, then a new round of eruptions would begin and the cycle would start over again.
Few places in the Cascade Mountains are as magical and transformative (for both the viewer and landscape) as Mount St. Helens. I distinctly remember watching the news of the eruption on May 18, 1980, and the reports of the devastation to people, plants, and animals. It didn’t seem possible that life would return and rush in to repopulate what looked like, and was, ground zero for an epic cataclysm. By recovering, these plants and animals have restored not only the landscape but also my hope; they are a sign that rebirth and renewal are forever possible.
Word of the Week - Pumice - A vesicular, generally grey, or light colored, volcanic rock. The name comes from the Latin pūmex, which is derived from spūma, or spume, in reference to the foam-like consistency of the rock. The niftiest aspect of pumice is that because of the abundant cavities it floats, though it is neither a duck nor a witch nor wood.