Friday, December 6, 2013

Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens, USA (January 11, 2007)

There was a mountain in North America that was as beautiful as Fuji-san in Japan. It was a perfect cone with a snow-white tip, raising to the sky amid lush forests and crowned by silvery rivers. That mountain was sacred to the people living in its vicinity.

Washington State, USA
Wikipedia tells us that Tyhee Saghalie, the chief of all the gods of the Klickitat people, traveled down the Columbia river from the ancestral lands in the north. He was with his two sons, Pahto and Wy'east, searching for a new land to settle. After much wandering they found a land so beautiful that both brothers wanted it for themselves. To resolve the dispute, their father used his magic bow to shoot two arrows in opposite directions. Patho followed the arrow that went north; Wy'east went instead south. Their father then built the Bridge of the Gods to connect the two lands, so that they could periodically have their family reunions.

For some time everything was well and dandy, until a fateful day the two brothers met a beautiful maiden whose name was Loowit. They both fell in love and started quarreling again, while Loowit could not choose between the two of them. In their fight, they buried villages and razed forests, shaking the earth so violently that the bridge of the God fell into the river (creating the Columbia River Gorge). Saghalie was very upset by all this devastation, and decided to punish the quarreling lovers. He struck down his two sons and transformed them into mountains: Patho became what is known now as Mount Adams while Wy'east became Mount Hood. And Loowit? She became the fairest mountain of all, Louwala-Clough (fire mountain) which we now call Mount St. Helens.

I have seen Mount St. Helens once, even though I didn't know it at the time. I only recognized the mountain of fire much later, when I finally started to work on the photos I took from a plane that was bringing me home from Seattle. It is the photo above, where you can see the huge crater of the volcano, and the plume of steam still rising from it. What you cannot see is the picture-perfect cone that, like Fuji-san, stands high above the forests and the river covered in snow.

The reason why the beautiful cone is missing is that Mount St. Helens top, at the 8:32AM PDT of May 18, 1980, blew up, in the course of the most destructive volcanic event recorded in the United States. The eruption cut 400 meters from the height of the mountain, killing 57 people, flattening 250 homes, felling 47 bridges, and destroying 15 miles of railways and 185 miles of highways. It became one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in the history of North America. You can still see, even in my foto, the huge scar left behind by the explosion. The north side of the mountain is missing, crushed by the explosion into an enormous avalanche of almost 3 km cube of debris. When President Jimmy Carter visited the devastation shortly after the eruption, he commented that "Someone said this area looked like a moonscape. But the moon looks more like a golf course compared to what's up there."

The area around the mountain was designated in 1982 by President Reagan and the US Congress (when it was still doing something) as a national Monument. As such it is granted protection that has allowed scientists to study how the environment can naturally recover from the disturbance caused by such cataclysmic events.

Taking off from Seattle Tacoma, USA (January 11, 2007)

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