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In ‘After the Blast,’ writer Eric Wagner brings to life the science at work at Mount St. Helens

Author Eric Wagner. East Mooring Basin, Astoria, OR (Bill Wagner / Courtesy of Bill Wagner)
Author Eric Wagner. East Mooring Basin, Astoria, OR (Bill Wagner / Courtesy of Bill Wagner)

Since before its historic eruption on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens has been an enduring source of fascination for science writer Eric Wagner. Growing up on the northwestern tip of Oregon in Astoria, Wagner never went long without seeing the mountain, often visiting on hiking trips with his parents. He still tries to go every year.

The mountain played an integral role in his education as he studied ecology in graduate school; the eruption of Mount St. Helens is “a classic example in the suite of examples that make up the narrative of ecological succession,” Wagner said. “It’s always in your mind.”

Wagner’s latest book, “After the Blast,” chronicles the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the groundbreaking effect it continues to have on the study of ecology to this day. The account draws from the anecdotes and collected research of more than 40 scientists, most of whom have spent almost as many years studying the event.

Leading up to the blast, Jerry Franklin, one of the many ecologists that Wagner was able to interview while writing the book, had suspected that whatever happened at Mount St. Helens would be ecologically noteworthy, to say the least. Working in Central Oregon at the time, he gathered a team of researchers to study whatever those consequences might turn out to be.

What followed the eruption differed greatly from what any of these scientists had expected. First, the mountain erupted outward rather than mostly upward, resulting in unanticipated lateral devastation. When the summit and north flank collapsed, it led to an avalanche of debris that laid waste to hundreds of square miles of forest surrounding the mountain.

The kind of apocalyptic landscape that these ecologists would later report seeing from helicopters and with photographs led them to conclude that there was no way that any life in the vicinity could possibly survive.

“In one way that’s horrifying,” Wagner said. “But also, as an ecologist, that can be pretty exciting. The chance to watch something recover from time zero is pretty rare.”

Franklin’s working hypothesis, and that of many others, was that decades would pass before native plants and animals could totally repopulate the blast area. But when Franklin stepped off the rail of his helicopter and looked down, he saw not one but many small shoots of fireweed poking out of the ash.

At first, the researchers thought they would only find evidence of colonization, “life creeping in from the edges,” but instead, they found survivors repopulating as well. This included plants like the fireweed, but also small animals and amphibians, which had been hibernating under the snow and underground, that had been spared the eruption’s worst effects.

“That was the real epiphany, that even when an environment has been ‘heavily disturbed,’ there can still be survivors. To see that was to see everything that (Franklin) was expecting turned on its head,” Wagner said. “To realize that the way he had thought about the eruption, the way that he thought about how the biology would respond was completely wrong. And I think that for him was just as exciting. To realize how wrong he was. To embrace that incorrectness and adjust from there was the real epiphany.”

While researching for “After the Blast,” Wagner attended several “Pulses,” a series of scientific retreats at Mount St. Helens, where scores of ecologists reunite every five years to resample plots they’ve been studying for decades, develop new projects together and share stories from the first years.

Wagner was particularly struck by this element of storytelling woven into the study of Mount St. Helens.

“There’s a real sense of oral tradition of Mount St. Helens, the way that scientists tell stories,” he said. “(Hearing) that sense of discovery … reading about how they struggled to work and tackle it as a scientific enterprise. We have this received idea of what happened at Mount St. Helens, but seeing how the story got told and how it was all put together was what I wanted people to see.”

To some, an event as famous as the eruption of Mount St. Helens might seem almost unnecessary to revisit. But Wagner believes there is still a long way to go before the subject is exhausted.

“There’s a lot that’s new, there’s a lot that you don’t know,” he said. “Mount St. Helens is still dynamic. It’s not done or settled in the slightest.”

After searching around for a suitable epigraph for some time, Wagner accidentally stumbled across an Emily Dickinson poem that neither he nor his editor had ever read before that moment.

“I thought that was so apt,” Wagner said. “Here’s this thing that everybody knows so much about but you can still find a tiny little bit that hasn’t been talked about.”

The poem reads: “On my volcano grows the Grass / A meditative spot — / An acre for a Bird to choose / Would be the general thought — / How red the Fire rocks below / How insecure the sod / Did I disclose / Would populate with awe my solitude.”

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