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Mount St. Helens memories: Gardens

Editor’s note: Readers submitted these stories about gardens or yards and the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980.

Bees’ death dances recorded in ash swirls

My husband and I moved to Spokane in August 1978 and bought a home in the West Central neighborhood in the spring of 1979. The morning that Mount St. Helens erupted we were in the yard tending to our vegetable garden and puzzling over the suddenly darkening sky, since we knew the weather forecast had been for sunshine. And then the ash began to fall …

I remember the confusion in the days after Mount St. Helens erupted; rumors spread as fast as the gray ash fell. First, we heard that the ash would be toxic to plants, then the news was that it would actually improve plant growth. Some people thought it was better to try to wash the ash off everything; others claimed it was a bad idea to stir it up, or that it would clog the sewers. It was said that the world climate would change for years due to the fallout from the eruption.

I remember wearing dust masks outdoors for days, until the cleanup had proceeded to the point where every breath of wind was no longer stirring up clouds of ash.

I remember dead bees on the ground, their death dances memorialized in the crazed and beautiful pattern of swirls in the ash.

I remember the days after the eruption as being blissfully quiet. No one was driving (rumors that the ash would clog a car engine’s air filter turned out to be true) and the streets were clear. There were no B-17s flying out of Fairchild and no commercial flights operating out of the airport. We stayed home and tended to our newly planted garden, and for a little while, felt as though we were living in a more leisurely and bucolic past.

Jessie Norris, Spokane


Alfalfa harvest plastered on field

It was a quiet, sunny morning at Tolstoy Farm, in Mill Canyon outside Davenport. I was outside and heard an odd sound that I have never heard again. I can only describe it as a faint, distant double sonic boom.

Later, I heard about the eruption on the radio, and then turned on the television. I saw why they predicted that the ash was coming our way. It looked like the strong ocean wind was pushing the billowing smoke stack in one direction.

When it arrived, the light in the canyon became yellow as the sun was being filtered out. I started moving around our hillside with my camera and tripod, taking pictures. The air was gritty in my nose and mouth. The most memorable photo I took was looking north in the canyon to the patch of daylight still left over the Spokane River as the black cloud overhead was closing in on it.

By noon, it was dark as night. The goats and chickens were spooked. We looked down toward the county road and saw a pair of headlights.

For the next few days, the ash fell like snow. The wind kept it in suspension after that. It gave us a strong idea of what nuclear fallout would probably be like, as we stayed inside except to care for the animals.

Just before the eruption, my then wife and I had just completed the season’s first cutting of alfalfa. We planted and maintained a one acre field of it. The harvest lay plastered on the field. We later heard of government aid available to farmers who lost their crops to the ash fall. When we traveled to Spokane to apply for compensation to replace what it took us days to cut by hand with scythes, they laughed us out of there.

We were glad to have witnessed such an awe-inspiring wonder.

Morton Alexander, Spokane

Sheer novelty made it better than a holiday

My husband Carl and I didn’t know about the Mount St. Helens eruption. We hadn’t turned on the news; we went right out to plant our garden. As the day progressed, the sky started getting dark. We thought one hell of a thunderstorm must be blowing in, so we redoubled our efforts to get the tomatoes in before it started to rain. It wasn’t until ash started to fall that we realized something was wrong and turned on the TV. My first reaction was disbelief that something that far away could have any effect on us. That was replaced by amazement, as the ash was sure confirmation.

It turned out to be a great adventure. We walked everywhere we went, wearing masks. It was so quiet, with no motorized vehicles or equipment anywhere. People were outside, walking to some unknown destination, or working together to sweep or wash down sidewalks and streets. Everyone was in high spirits, and cheerily greeted us as we went by. It was better than a holiday for the sheer novelty of it.

The only downside was our cramped household, with two extra people, one of them sick. My husband’s son Jeff and his girlfriend had been visiting that day, ultimately staying with us for four days. Jeff thought it was great fun to be out in the ash and spent quite a bit of time outside. By night the ash had aggravated his asthma, and he ended up with pneumonia. Though everything was closed down, I had a doctor’s appointment at Rockwood Clinic, which wasn’t too far away. My doctor was one of the only doctors there, and he agreed to see Jeff. So that worry became manageable.

There was also a conflict with a neighbor. After the water alert was issued asking people to stop washing things down, this neighbor was washing his car. I informed him of the alert, and – he was rather unpleasant anyway – we ended up exchanging words. He finished washing his car anyway. So much for do-gooder tactics.

We saved some jars of Mount St. Helens ash, which have been misplaced. I was delighted by the ceramics that had been glazed with it. Ten years later, we visited Mount St. Helens and climbed the back side. I bought a ceramic piece in Cougar. I cherish it still, as a reminder of our adventure. As for the garden, it didn’t do so well with the gray and rainy skies over what seemed like weeks. The tomato plants, especially, looked yellow and sick much of the summer.

Polly Carlson

Sprinkler cleanup solution backfires

We lived in Yakima when Mount St. Helens blew. Our son, who lived in Seattle, had come over to celebrate Mother’s Day and brought my wife a plant. The morning of the eruption my wife had gone outside to plant her Mother’s Day gift. It was clear and sunny, but she noticed a black layer in the distant horizon and said, “Great, we are going to get some rain for my new plant.”

By noon it was as black as night. The ash sounded like hail dropping. Every once in a while my son would go on our patio and pick up some ash in a plastic bag. When it was just over half full, he picked it up and the bottom fell out. Heavy.

Our front yard was all shrubs/plants and no grass. However, I had a sprinkler system. Being the “rocket scientist” I am, I decided to turn the sprinklers on to wash the ash off the plants/shrubs as it fell. Bad idea. The ash stuck to the wet shrubs/plants and flattened them to the ground. I had to clean each one by hand.

After the eruption was over, the city informed the downtown business community that on a specific day they could get on their building roofs and sweep the ash onto the street and sidewalks. The city would pick up the sweepings, no charge. If businesses chose to do it any other day, they would be responsible to clean up their own mess. My office was on the seventh floor of the Larson Building. The day of the sweepings I could not see across the street to the next building because the dust was so thick.

The city was in the process of cleaning up the ash and was making huge piles in various parts of the city. A man representing a California company claimed to represent a manufacturer of bathroom fixtures, sinks, toilet stools, bath tubs, etc. This man’s proposal to the city was to put a cover that would hold the ash in place (as the wind had played havoc with the ash) and then remove the ash as needed to be part of the material in manufacturing the bathroom fixtures. Then when each “stack” was empty, the city could use the covered unit for storage as they saw fit. I don’t know what his price was, but the city was on the verge of giving the go-ahead and giving him a fair amount of money when they decided to check him out. You know the answer.

Wm. J. Hiatt

Bug travels like footprints in the snow

I was a senior at Medical Lake High School and was busy mowing lawns, trying to catch up after falling behind on my weekly rounds. I could see a giant storm front approaching from the southwest and assumed rain was on its way. I finished my last lawn at 2 p.m. and learned that an ash cloud from Mount St. Helens was approaching. I hurried home and watched the massive front consume the clear sky as it became darker and darker.

The streetlights came on and it was only 4 in the afternoon. I turned on the porch light and watched the ash starting to fall, almost like watching snow fall at night. Everything was an eerie gray the next morning.

I notice how bugs had been traveling in the ash and it looked like footprints in the snow. At the time, everyone was concerned about the effects that the ash would have on the crops and the long term health effects on people and animals.

My family and I didn’t leave the house for four days except to go to the fire station to get free dust masks. After four days, my buddy Neal and I decided to sneak out of the house with my younger brother Robb and go bass fishing at Silver Lake. No one had been on the lake since the eruption, and it turned out to be the best day of bass fishing that I ever had. We were catching fish on every cast. The Mount St. Helens eruption also marked the end of my senior year at school, except for Medical Lake High School’s graduation, which took place on June 3, 1980.

John D. Parker

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