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Reimagining Mount St. Helens

November 30, 2010

Ever since the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State, a network of ecologists, naturalists, field workers and earth scientists has conducted site visits every five years to study changes in the surrounding terrain and ecosystems.

Known as the Mount St. Helens Science Pulse, the initiative is sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project. This year, on the 30th anniversary of the eruption, it included a cohort of 12 writers and poets. Among them was Cheryl Fish, a Professor of English at BMCC.

Professor Fish will be honored at a CUNY Chancellor’s reception for her work at the Spring Creek Project.

“Our role was to help understand the meaning of catastrophe and renewal from a humanistic perspective and a writer’s point of view,” she says. “Each day we’d hike into different parts of the blast zone, exploring a variety of habitats and seeing how they’d changed over time.”

In the evenings, the writers sat in on presentations by scientists on their research findings as they pertained to the volcano’s long-term impact on soil, wildlife and plants.  

“We discussed why some species all but died out, while others survived and regenerated with surprising speed,” Fish says. “I learned a tremendous amount.”

Evoking memories of 9/11

As the only participating writer from New York, Fish’s experience was filtered through a singular perspective and sensibility.

“Being there stirred memories of 9/11 and had a tremendous emotional impact on me,” she says. “I lived and worked close to Ground Zero and, like so many others in the community, experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. For years I was unable to write about 9/11 and still can’t look at photographs of the destruction.”

But the experience of seeing firsthand both the devastation wrought by the volcano and the new growth that followed has helped her begin to process that terrible day—and to write about it.

Putting feelings into words

“We all camped out together—the writers and scientists—and became a community,” Fish says. “On the last night, the writers all read aloud from what we were working on.”

Fish had begun work on several poems and a short story. She also hopes to write a nonfiction prose narrative interwoven with poetry. In her poem Volcanic/Panic—“a work in progress,” she notes—she reflects on the connection between natural and manmade catastrophe and the possibilities of renewal:

Poets and scientists struggle
to explain, to grasp
volcanology—a pyroclastic flow
is rapid
hot gas undulating, escaping
lahar mudflow
fires flying in liquid
domes collapsing upon themselves
we cannot stay away

 “Private property”
cannot appease public needs
the towers fell in fragments
beneath the rubble
spirits smoldering

Large tephra chunks of
Lapilli, (Italian, for the ash
Of Vesuvius)
Species return, some new to the
Cascade plain where forest had been
We still live with the embers
What about a simple memorial?
A national monument for all who pray or cry
Volcanic insides expose hot air
Who may speak of rebuilding?
Light hits the pit where resistance lingers
I hear something.

“Each of the writers brought something unique to the experience,” says Fish. “In my case, I was the only writer from New York—and the only one to have experienced 9/11 in so immediate a way.” Others in the group came from elsewhere in the U.S.—including the Pacific Northwest.

“There was a woman who had grown up there and, as a child, spent summers with her family at cabins and campgrounds in the area,” she says, referring to Christine Colasurdo, author of Return to Spirit Lake. “For her, the loss was deeply personal.”  

Celebrated Beat poet Gary Snyder had taken part in earlier Pulse outings and written about Mount St. Helens in a 2005 collection of poems, Danger on Peaks. “Snyder grew up climbing the mountain and wrote a poem about the bombing of Hiroshima that juxtaposed manmade and natural disaster,” says Fish.  “His work has been a major inspiration to me.”

Photo credit: Simmons Buntin

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  • Cheryl Fish is one of 12 writers who received a fellowship to take part in Mount St. Helens Science Pulse.
  • Research initiative gathers data about the long-term effects of the 1980 volcanic eruption.
  • In her poetry, Fish juxtaposes natural and manmade catastrophes.

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