Prepare to Sin, My Children

Envy is still one of the 7 deadly, and you are about to envy me lots.

We did Mount St. Helens with Suzanne. The weather cooperated beautifully: a few wisps o’ clouds, nothing that even came close to obscuring the volcano. And I finally got that shot from Silver Lake I’ve been yearning for ever since getting the new camera:

Mount St. Helens with Silver Lake in the foreground. Taken from the visitors center at Silver Lake.

Okay, so there’s haze (stupid conifers and their hydrocarbon thingies). But she’s indubitably there. And I have another photo wherein she pops, but it’s not as well centered, and I’m going to play at the hack-and-slash (crop) later to see if I can make it look better.

Silver Lake is round about 2,500 years old, and was created by an old lahar. The Toutle River Valley is pretty much paved with lahars. I was staring at houses the whole way up thinking you couldn’t pay me enough to live there. I like to visit, wouldn’t mind staying a night (on higher ground), but live? No. Never.

I’ve got lots of artsy-sciency photos from today, but I’d too damned tired to sort through them. Also, there is cherry peach cobbler waiting for me to eat it with some vanilla gelato, so I haven’t time for more than a few shots. The rest will come, my darlings, I promise.

This sequence of three is quite fun. Helicopter for scale.

Helicopter flying past the caldera. Taken from Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Can you find it? I guarantee you it’s there. Make sure you click to embiggen. This, my darlings, is how very fucking huge that caldera is. People call it a crater, but it’s a bloody mile wide. That’s a damn caldera, m’kay? Helicopter proves it.

Helicopter flying past the caldera. Note the dust kicking up from the somewhat bowl-shaped area in the center of the photo. That wasn’t from the helicopter – it was happening well before. It seems to have been loose ash blowing in the wind. Taken from Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Find it yet? It looks like a gnat, compared to that mountain. It’s a reasonable-sized helicopter, though. Seats several people.

Fairly nice view of the dome in that photo: it gives you some idea of the size of the thing. You can also see that rampart, created by (if I remember correctly) all those pyroclastic flows roaring out through the gap. This is how Mount St. Helens will regain her former symmetrical shape: by building domes, filling in the gaps with ash and rock and the occasional lava flow. Someday, long after we are gone, she will once again achieve that ice-cream cone shape our young and active Cascades volcanoes favor. And then, one day after that, she will unleash overwhelming violence once again. I hope that people, if they still live in the Northwest then, remember May 18th. I hope they never forget what David Johnston died for, what Rocky Crandell and Dwight Mullineaux and countless others spent so many years figuring out. I hope they remember what she’s capable of, and get the hell out of the way.

That’s assuming, of course, this doesn’t happen in some far-future where humans have learned to safely release the pressure from volcanoes entering an eruptive phase, and convert the energy that would have powered catastrophe into powering lives, instead. Sorry. The SF writer still trapped somewhere inside me can’t help but speculate.

Helicopter passing the flank. Taken from Johnston Ridge Observatory.

I’ll tell you something: listening to that helicopter fly past, the sound echoing through the valley, was eerie. Part of me knew it was a typical tour helicopter, just out sightseeing. Another part of me thought of the search and rescue efforts those first days, the courageous pilots who flew into an eruption to try and find survivors. I thought of Harry Glicken, commandeering every helicopter he could, persuading the pilots to fly right in front of that deadly north face, trying to find Coldwater II in a place where nothing, no landmarks, no features, remained. Part of me thought of the scientists who flew in later, studying every aspect of the eruption. And I almost expected to see that helicopter land, and dispense people in overalls with complicated equipment.

It’s still a moonscape out there. It’s getting better. There’s some green stuff. But you can see that in this zone, where pyroclastic flow after flow came roaring down. We watched the biology movie this time, and it said nothing survived there. Not a seed, not a gopher, not a single living thing. I can believe it. Judging from the dearth of green, nothing’s finding it easy to get a toehold there, even now.

This is sounding maudlin. I’m not really feeling all mopey, just introspective, and looking at views from Johnston Ridge always gives me a mix of elation, awe and sorrow.

Mount St. Helens from Johnston Ridge Observatory. People are listening to a ranger give a talk about her eruptions.

I saw so much more this trip, understood so much more of what I was seeing, and I will share it with you. We have quite a ways to go before we’ve done more than put a scuff on the surface of what’s there to discover. This is one of the greatest places on earth to see geology at its rawest, its most dramatic, and its most beautiful.

When we left, as we drove through young trees that were reclaiming the ridges, life exploding all round, I had only one thought: fuck botany. Screw biology.* Let others have that squidgy living stuff – I’ll take the hard rocks and their stories. Life is an incredible thing, certainly. But I find the fact that something so seemingly simple as a rock can go through so many dramatic changes, and can reveal so much of that history to someone who’s patiently followed its clues, is far more fascinating. Life evolving doesn’t surprise me a bit: that’s what life does. The fact that rocks have such rich, complex lives: now that is bloody astonishing.

Awe is the only appropriate response.


*I actually do like both biology and botany quite a bit. It’s just that I love geology far more. We all have our passions.

Prepare to Sin, My Children
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14 thoughts on “Prepare to Sin, My Children

  1. 2

    LOL – awe may be the appropriate response but Envy is what I’m feeling. Out here in Illinois. Among the shriveled cornstalks.

    During the last ice age there would have been a mile of ice above my head. During the Ordovician era I’d be on the floor of a shallow sea. At least that would have been interesting

    I can’t wait to see the posts you’ll write from these!

  2. 3

    I get where you are coming from and can appreciate your beautiful buzz here. But I have to tell you, the best highs are the synergist ones.

    I’ve always identified as a biologist. And sure, I’ve had some grand highs from observing living organisms: giant ichneumid wasps with 4″ ovipositors probing sapsucker holes for beetle larvae, caribbean reef squid lined up making dance-like gestures as if they were the Rockettes over a turtle grass meadow, young white tail bucks sparring in the back yard. Each of these experiences left me quivering, no doubt about it. But to trot through the woods, observing the landforms, the drainages, the soils, the exposure to weather, the overall climate, the assemblages of plants and animals, all of these things, well that’s pretty deep and rich.

    Last night we had thunderstorms here in CT. I looked at the composite loop for my area on NOAA and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a perfect wave. It was a beautiful thing, this front, these big storms going over us. It looked like a seascape. So I turned out the lights and went outside and sat on the steps. Mostly it was too dark to see much, except when there were flashes. I could hear the hissing of the rain, the sounds of the wind in the trees and the constant ringing sounds of insect song. The tree crickets were going like tiny alarms. The katydids were not slowed by the rain, they were katydoings. And I just sat there and reveled in the rain splatter and the pulse of the pressure changes from the storm.

    And the ocean? OMFFSM, just walk down the length of a beach and look at the cusps and the wrackline. There are so many processes going on here and so much movement. And the bulk of the obvious movement is non-biotic. You can watch waves all day, lie on the beach and listen to them thump down on the sand. You can stand in the water and feel those orbitals just tug at you. Mmmm yummy geology, biology, chemistry and physics in the headiest stew ever.

    Makes me weak in the knees. And with all this wow and flutter going on about the Mars landing, I just want to give Momma Earth her props. Because no matter how much we try to defile her, she’s ever so much more beautiful than any other dried up old planet.

  3. 4

    Oh, heh, I got so carried away there, I forgot the initial reason I replied.

    With your photo at the top of your post, might I suggest you have at it in PhotoShop or some similar program and try mucking about a bit with the offset and gamma correction? It might cut the haze a little bit.


  4. 5

    I’m not envious at all! I’m going to Banff and Jasper Parks, so there! Beautiful, tilted, sedimentary rocks, with not a volcano around for 100km.

    OK, I’m envious as I can be. Sounds like a great trip. Wish I was there.

  5. 7


    Just out of curiosity, have you been to Windy Ridge? Only a couple of miles from the Johnston Ridge visitor center, as I recall, but probably close to 100 if you have to drive. That was the first viewpoint opened after the eruption.

    I think there are photo-filters that are supposed to help with the haze, if your camera can use them.

  6. 8

    Not that I would have been able to make this particular trip, but do you do these with a meetup group or something? I’d love to attend some hikes/walks with people who actually know their schist (sp?). I have several regular hiking companions that would probably also love to go on something like this. We’ve recently started exploring some of the local trails here in the PNW, and they are getting tired of me asking what kinds of trees we’re always oohing and aahing at….

    My specialty, such as it is, is birds.

  7. 10

    dana! i had such a blast (pun intended) visiting her with you – i learned so much! when i can walk better, i wanna go back and visit a few of the easy trails.

    thank you so very much for inviting me — after you left, i kept looking at that piece of pumice on the kitchen window sill with a whole new appreciation — thanks to you.

  8. 11

    Partly the story of the reclamation of the land by botany is one to suggest that even if we manage to kill ourselves off biology will still work and reclaim the earth. After all biology survived the Permian and Cretaceous extinctions, it will survive the human one. One other way to look at it is to drive the land between the lakes in Ky and see how the forest has reclaimed that land which has not been mowed in 50-60 years.

  9. 13

    Visited about 20 years ago. Much, obviously has changed, but I guess it still has a way to go.

    OT: have you seen Curiosity’s first photo of Mount Sharp?

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