The fireweed and the ashes

The fireweed is a herb indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. On mountainsides these green sprouts push up in stubborn little clumps, like tiny flags, claiming the most impoverished soil in the name of life.

But nobody could believe it when fireweed began to thrust through the ash just a month after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980. Michael Gold has described in the pages of Science 81 what the roots of the firewood managed to survive:

"The mountain exploded with a force comparable to the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated. Seconds later the hot blast of escaping gases toppled forests of 500-year-old fir trees and incinerated more than 100,000 tons of new leaves and young buds. In some areas a steaming syrup of mud and rock raced down the slopes at up to 150 miles an hour, stripping away topsoil and tearing up roots. Finally, pieces of the pulverized mountain fell from the sky, burying fertile soil in six to 24 inches of fine black sand, pebbles of pumice, and gray ash."

And then, in less than 30 days, the first shoots of fireweed poked through that lunar landscape into the spring sunlight.

More vegetation followed as summer arrived. Red columbine grew on the western slope where gases had reached an estimated 370 degrees Fahrenheit. Patches of thimbleberry, lupine, and thistle began to appear. A color photograph, as touching as an ode to spring, showed two sprigs of new green needles emerging from the singed limb of a fir tree.

The massive damage can scarcely be ignored. Forests of fir, hemlock, cedar, and pine were blasted away as if they never stood. At the end of the summer 70 percent of the land once covered by plants was still barren.

But something like a regeneration began, and, if all goes well, it will spread further across the wasteland this spring, and next spring, and the spring after. Seeds from the surviving trees will swirl over the ashes and plant themselves in the rubble. Botanists of the Forest Service figure the evolution from shrubs to trees will require 20 to 30 years. In half a century 50-foot evergreens should tower again, here and there, and a century from now they will clump into dense forests.

"Everything that could grow there before will be growing there again," one botanist summed up.

But who listens to the good news, as silent and as modest in the scale of things as a fireweed growing?The Big Bangs -- the mushroom clouds, the erupting black lava -- make the headlines.

How fearfully obsessed we have become with destructive power, as if, in fact, power meant nothing else! We recite to ourselves all the violent and toxic ways nature or history may destroy the earth and the human race. We are turning into connoisseurs of the Apocalyptic countdown.

The slightest rumbling of Mt. St. Helens -- not to mention another eruption -- can make the front page again this spring. Green shoots of fireweed will not. They lack the megaton dimensions to thrill us.

Yet which finally is the great power -- the mountain, awesomely exploding like a nuclear bomb? Or the green shoot of fireweed, pushing up through the layer of ash -- and as many layers of ash as may think to bury it?

It is the power of survival that is truly awesome.

The first spring -- the first real greening of the earth -- the naturalist Loren Eiseley did not hesitate to call an explosion, "a soundless explosion." He wrote: "It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion nevertheless." No volcano, no earthquake, no flood, no ice-age glacier could frustrate for long the thrusting of all those billions and billions of tiny shoots: the little bang of vegetation.

Each spring is a reprise of that first spring: a new beginning as astonishing each time, after the barrenness of winter, as the first fireweed through the volcanic ash.

One spring, amid the other more spectacular explosions of nature and history, we may pay attention to this ultimate explosion -- this ultimate evidence of power -- and conclude that lif e finally is not designed to be destroyed.

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