Thursday, August 30, 2012

Tangled Date Night: History and Science

Get this, you guys.
The Chief Lou and I were having a romantic evening last night. We really went all out.
We put the kids to bed early and they actually fell asleep when they went to bed.
We slipped into something a little more comfortable (read: flannel pants), turned the lights down, heated up a great big bowl of queso and got the fiesta sized bag of chips, and snuggled up to watch NOVA on PBS.

It was hot.

Very hot.

It was about volcanoes.

Not just any volcano. Mount Saint Helens.

So, if you're roughly my age, images of the explosive eruption of Mount Saint Helens may be burned into your unconscious along with Ronald Reagan and the Cold War. I remember sitting and watching people on the news try to uncover streets, cars, houses, beloved pets that were covered in ash. I remember people being vaporized in the nuclear fallout and singing with Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. I remember images of rescue workers in yellow suits helping deal with the aftermath. I remember mushroom clouds. I remember Plasticine hair and large white teeth. OK, so maybe I was pretty young and it all kind of ran together in my mind. But I do remember when the communists made Mount Saint Helens erupt and all the trickle down ash. Of course, I was living in Vermont at the time, so we were about as far removed from the whole thing as you could get and still be in the US. Those poor foreigners in the State of Washington - not DC where my grandmother lived, but that distant galaxy of Ewok planets where the trees grew so large and there were things like volcanoes. Listen, if you're older than I am and less demented, your memories of the thing may be a little different. But what is that thing people are always saying? That children often see things more clearly than adults do? This is obviously a case of that, so don't be harshing my buzz. Anyway, it was 1981. Anything was possible.

So, as life goes on and you have man-made disasters to confront and store away in the unconscious, these mere volcanic eruptions get pushed aside in favor of other horrors. Like Milli Vanilli and the 2000 election and stuff like that. Until you are snuggled down with your sweetie and suddenly realize that you recognize the footage that they are showing of the surrounding areas. I've been camping near there! With my babies! I've stopped to pee at that exit on the freeway! This is so about my life! So we watched the geologists (they're a wild and photogenic bunch, aren't they?) as they explained all about the lava dome that has grown in the crater and there were a lot of seismograph action shots [I do love a seismograph!], a few thermal computer images and lots of helicopter shots of blowing ash. It was just riveting and here is what I learned:

- Geologists are insane. It is like an extreme profession. I never would have guessed it what with the rocks and the bazillions of years and all that.

- After an eruption, the volcano continues to burble out lava and it hardens in the cooler air and forms a bit of a cork for the volcano. A massive cork made of rock.

- There are pretty much non-stop tremors after an eruption as the volcano continues to burp and clear its throat.

- That sucker erupted again in 2004 and 2007 and NOBODY TOLD ME ABOUT IT! In 2004 I was safely away in the land of Ohio, but in 2007 I was RIGHT HERE. (I told you. This is all about me.)

- Once the volcano settles down some more, it occasionally belches out "spines" of rock the size of sky scrapers, sometimes at a rate of 16 feet an hour. That's not terribly fast if you're driving to the mall, but if you're watching a whole building breaching like a whale out of a volcano crater, that's entirely too fast to be at all comfortable with. All of this is just happening a short way down the freeway from me!

- The insane and photogenic geologists did some really fun things with core samples and newly exposed rock walls and a fancy microscope and explained very patiently to me that Mount Saint Helens is "like a bottle of soda that has gone flat" just as casual as you please. Apparently the belching is from trapped gases and as of late, she's had a Tums and a good dump and is resting quietly now. The relief was palpable in our TV room, let me tell you. Except...

- They have no idea, nor any idea how to predict, how long it will be until those gases build back up again. Cheerful Crazy Geologist Guy just shrugged and pushed up his glasses and said "It could be three hundred years, it could be three years."

In summation: there is a big honkin' rock cork stuck in the champagne bottle of a mountain near me that is being steadily shaken until who knows when it will pop that cork with a mighty vigor and I will die in my bed, or at the very least have to get my carpets cleaned.

Here's the best part though. This is the part that made me cry. In the crater of the  volcano where everything was dead. Dead as a doornail. (Someone please explain this to me, what is a doornail and why is it deader than other things?) It looked like the surface of the moon. All dust and gray and black and ash and igneous rock. Barren and destroyed. Obliterated. Just dead. Except...

Right smack in the middle of the crater was a burst of color. A wild prairie lupine had sprung up amid the destruction. Not just managed to grow, but was thriving. It is a plant that usually grows at higher elevations but there it was, just standing tall and bravely blooming its delicate purple flowers. How did it accomplish such a thing? Crazy Geologist Guy with Ponytail explained it to me. It nourishes itself. It has bacterium that live on its roots that convert something into nitrogen to feed the plant, which in turn grows and photosynthesizes and feeds the bacterium a simple sugar. So there, in the middle of such desolation and complete annihilation, this plant gave itself some sugar and insisted on growing. Not only that, but because this plant decided that it would just, you know, grow, it has helped to pave the way for life to slowly return to the crater and surrounding areas.

Come to think of it, I may just survive a volcanic eruption after all.


  1. If anyone can .. you can ...

    All I remember is 9/11 and Michael Jackson died. -_-

    1. Bless you, Larissa! I was thinking about you when I hit "publish". I wondered if you'd read and how many of the references would make any sense to you. It seems it has been quite a while since we've worked on your 80s and 90s pop culture together. ;)

    2. She thought of me! (: And yes.. it's been a while, but I'm ready to go. I'd like you to know, however, that because of this post it is Saturday night and I'm looking up recipes for homemade queso because I want my own bowl of queso. Now.

      "In Texas you can buy happiness. People generally order it as an appetizer. It’s called queso.” – @TexasHumor

    3. Did you find a good recipe? Share it, please. I love that quote. I may have it done up in calligraphy and hung in my kitchen. Queso is an essential food group in our home.

  2. My mother wrote and had a poem published about St. Helen's. I was almost five and therefore remember the eruption as the terrible, pyroplastic poem event. I don't remember communists until later, but we were liberals, so I wasn't so afraid of them. I was afraid of the crazy grown-ups in Washington (the other Washington) triggering a nuclear war. It all fades into memory of ash and melting cars, people and mountains.

    "It has bacterium that live on its roots that convert something into nitrogen to feed the plant, which in turn grows and photosynthesizes and feeds the bacterium a simple sugar."

    I never cease to thrill at nitrogen-fixing plants. I took the time to teach Mikalh about them just the other day. To me, somehow, they are evidence of a sort of universal order and motherly care for growing things. I planted some silver lupine last weekend. It was a kind of prayer of thankfulness to the world. Thanks for sharing your geologists.

  3. How our idea of a hot date changes over time ;-)

    I even got some of the 80's references even though I was only born in 81 :-D

    1. Brava! I shall add you to my list of pupils along with Larissa for hopelessly confused and demented 80s ephemera education.

  4. My cousins and I thought the shirts "Where were you when the Mountain blew?" were the height of fashion....we coveted pink shirts with sparkly plastic appliques. And we could tell you exactly where we were when the mountain blew, we heard the boom and we saw the ash fall. I've never camped there, all though my husband has asked to for the last 19 years, because I'm too chicken. Yes, a big, scared, chicken!

    Mount St Helens is worse than all the horror movies staring Freddy Krueger because the mountain is real and it's not really a mountain!

    1. See? I knew you would feel me on this. I'm relatively new to the area, but it FREAKS ME RIGHT OUT. It is just so large and so local. It would seem incredibly unwise to take such a thing for granted.

      And oh! How I would love to pick your brain about your memories of this sometime!

    2. Worse, in my opinion, my parents and my aunt and uncle decided to move to Portland six months after the eruption. We'd drive by Toutle River and could see how gray and desolate it was! Scary stuff, that's for sure!

  5. I was, um, 11 when it erupted--I remember seeing the footage on the television at my maternal grandparents' house. I remember being stunned at the way the lava wiped out trees which would simultaneously fall and burst into flame. All I could think about was Pompeii, which we had just been learning about in social studies...

    I am a huge Bill Bryson fan and his book A Short History of Nearly Everything is a brilliant and amazing read, but I am going on record as saying you should probably avoid it at all costs because the section on volcanos, earthquakes, and other geological stuff will no doubt haunt you always.

    1. Do not get me started on Pompeii or earthquakes.
      Seriously, what if I get solidified in lava and a thousand years from now there will be some NOVA show where they look at my remains and discuss all of the indicators of my financial status and fashion forwardness?! It's almost more than I can bear.

      And earthquakes. No. Just no.

  6. I vaguely remember Mt St Helens - we lived in the UP of Michigan at the time and I don't think I remember the event as much as I remember the talk about it later.

    In a meeting the other day, someone said "don't harsh my mellow" and I wrote it down. No idea what the meeting was about, but I now know better than to harsh her mellow.

    As for Milli Vanilli? Devastating. Still have the cassette tape. Didn't care who they were; liked the music anyway.

    And I wanna be a wild prairie lupine. Mostly because I want to have purple flowers and live on sugar.


Thanks for reading and taking the time to say hello!