Mountain as muse


Mt. St. Helens and the peaks of the Cascade Range formed the backdrop of Gary Snyder’s youth. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet grew up on a dairy farm outside Seattle and attended a summer camp at the base of Mt. St. Helens. In his life — notable for associations with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets and a lifelong study of Zen Buddhism — these mountains and a similar affection for the Sierra Nevada have never left his field of vision.

Although the earthquakes that began to rattle the national monument late last month have diminished, lava continues to push into the crater. Geologists admit uncertainty whether the mountain is merely capping or preparing to pop like some shaken can of soda. Questions of geologic time riddle the pages of Snyder’s writings about Mt. St. Helens, collected in “Danger on Peaks” (Shoemaker & Hoard).

When Snyder climbed its 9,677-foot summit for the first time on Aug. 13, 1945, he was 15 years old, and the mountain’s dynamism lay deep underground. Because of its gentle slopes and perfect dome, hikers referred to it as the Mt. Fuji of the West, and the explosion in 1980 altered that image forever. “Nature is not a book,” Snyder says. “It’s a performance.” And he brings that performance to life through an interplay of prose and poetry, reflection and association. In “Danger on Peaks,” he chronicles his 60-year relationship with the mountain he sometimes refers to by its Sahaptin Indian name, “Loowit.”


In “The Climb” and “Atomic Dawn,” Snyder looks back upon the final days of World War II when he left camp at Spirit Lake and, in the company of 10 or so other hikers and a guide, slowly ascended the peak. “The experience itself is one of great patience,” he says, aware that in some intuitive way “climbing the mountain … would be spiritually good for me.”

“1980: Letting Go” recounts the drama of the May 18 explosion often referred to as “the worst volcanic disaster in the recorded history of the United States.” It began with a 5.1-magnitude earthquake at 8:32 a.m. and resulted in a lateral blast that left 57 people dead.

In 2000, Snyder joined geologist Fred Swanson on a camping trip to the mountain, sleeping out on a ridge under a cloudless starry night, surrounded by the radically changed topography he describes in

“Blast Zone.”

“Pearly Everlasting” derives its name from the flower Anaphalis margaritacea that grows on slopes amid fireweed and huckleberries. Here, Snyder draws upon a passage from 2nd century Sanskrit text to remind us of everything we must abandon if we are to understand our place in the universe.

Both evocative and literal, Snyder’s poems suggest the violent serenity of these forms. To understand it, we must move “our scale of thinking, out of the immediate social and political framework that we tend to think in” toward a more ancient and unpredictable worldview.
--Thomas Curwen

Poems by Gary Snyder

The Climb


Walking the nearby ridges and perching on the cliffs of Coldwater Mountain, I memorized the upper volcano. The big and little

Lizards (lava ridges with their heads uphill), the Dogshead, with a broad bulge of brown rock and white snowpatches making it took faintly like a St. Bernard. The higher-up icefields with the schrund and wide crevasses, and the approach slopes from timberline. Who wouldn’t take the chance to climb a snowpeak and get the long view?

Two years later the chance came. Our guide was an old-time Mazama from Tigard in Oregon. His climbing life went back to World War One. Then he got a big orchard. He wore a tall black felt hunting hat, high corked loggers-boots, stagged-off pants, and carried the old style alpenstock. We put white zinc oxide paste on our noses and foreheads, each got our own alpenstock, and we wore metal-rimmed dark goggles like Sherpas in the thirties. We set out climbing the slidey pumice lower slopes well before dawn.

Step by step, breath by breath — no rush, no pain. Onto the snow on Forsyth Glacier, over the rocks of the Dogshead, getting a lesson in alpenstock self-arrest, a talk on safety and patience, and then on to the next phase: ice. Threading around crevasses, climbing slow, we made our way to the summit just like Issa’s

“Inch by inch
little snail
creep up Mt. Fuji”

West Coast snowpeaks are too much! They are too far above the surrounding lands. There is a break between. They are in a different world. If you want to get a view of the world you live in, climb a little rocky mountain with a neat small peak. But the big snowpeaks pierce the realm of clouds and cranes, rest in the zone of five-colored banners and writhing crackling dragons in veils of ragged mist and frost-crystals, into a pure transparency of blue.

St. Helens’ summit is smooth and broad, a place to nod, to sit and write, to watch what’s higher in the sky and do a little dance. Whatever the numbers say, snowpeaks are always far higher than the highest airplanes ever get. I made my petition to the shapely mountain, “Please help this life.” When I tried to look over and down to the world below — there was nothing there.

And then we grouped up to descend. The afternoon snow was perfect for glissade and leaning on our stocks we slid and skidded between cracks and thumps into soft snow, dodged lava slabs, got into the open snowfield slopes and almost flew to the soft pumice ridges below. Coming down is so fast! Still high we walked the three-mile dirt road back to the lake.

Atomic Dawn

The day I first climbed
Mt. St. Helens was
August 13, 1945.

Spirit Lake was far from the cities of the valley and news came slow. Though the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima August 6 and the second dropped on Nagasaki August 9, photographs didn’t appear in the Portland Oregonian until August 12. Those papers must have been driven in to Spirit Lake on the 13th. Early the morning of the 14th I walked over to the lodge to check the bulletin board. There were whole pages of the paper pinned up: photos of a blasted city from the air, the estimate of 150,000 dead in Hiroshima alone, the American scientist quoted saying “nothing will grow there again for seventy years.” The morning sun on my shoulders, the fir forest smell and the big tree shadows; feet in thin moccasins feeling the ground, and my heart still one with the snowpeak mountain at my back. Horrified, blaming scientists and politicians and the governments of the world, I swore a vow to myself, something like, “By the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I will fight against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all my life.”

1980: Letting Go

Centuries, years and months of —

let off a little steam
cloud up and sizzle
growl stamp-dance
quiver swell, glow
glare bulge

swarms of earthquakes, tremors, rumbles

she goes

8.32 AM 18 May 1980

superheated steams and gasses
white-hot crumbling boulders lift and fly in a
burning sky-river wind of
searing lava droplet hail,
huge icebergs in the storm, exploding mud,
shoots out flat and rolls a swelling billowing
cloud of rock bits,
crystals, pumice, shards of glass
dead ahead blasting away —
a heavenly host of tall trees goes flat down
lightning dances through the giant smoke

a calm voice on the two-way
ex-navy radioman and volunteer
describes the spectacle — then
says, the hot black cloud is
rolling toward him — no way
but wait his fate

a photographer’s burnt camera
full of half melted pictures,
three fallers and their trucks
chainsaws in back, rumbled gray and still,
two horses swept off struggling in hot mud
a motionless child laid back in a stranded ashy pickup

roiling earth-gut-trash cloud tephra twelve miles high
ash falls like snow on wheatfields and orchards to the east
five hundred Hiroshima bombs

in Yakima, darkness at noon

Blast Zone

Late August 2000.

An early plane from Reno to Portland, meet Fred Swanson at the baggage claim. Out of the Portland airport and onto these new streets, new highways, there’s a freeway bridge goes right across the Columbia, the 205, piers touch down on the mid-river island, but there’s no way onto it. This is the skinny cottonwood island that Dick Meigs and I used to sail to and camp on the sandbars. Blackberries growing around the transmission towers.

In an instant we’re in Washington State, and swinging north to join the main 5. Signs for Battleground, Cougar. Crossing the Lewis River, the Columbia to the left, the Kalama River, the old Trojan nuke plant towers, then on to Castle Rock. Freeway again, no sign of the towns — they’re off to the west — and we turn into the Toutle River valley on a big new road. Old road, old bridges most all swept away.

(Remembering two lane highway 99, and how we’d stop for groceries in Castle Rock, a hunter/logger’s bar with walls covered solid by racks of antlers. The road east toward Spirit Lake first climbed steeply out of town and then gradually up along the river. It was woodlots and pasture and little houses and barns, subsistence farms, farmer-loggers.) Air cool, clear day, bright green trees.

The new Silver Lake Mt. St. Helens Visitors Center is close enough to the freeway that travelers on the 5 can swing by here, take a look, and continue on. It’s spacious, with a small movie theater in back and a volcano model in the center large enough to descend into, walk through, and at the center look down a skillful virtual rising column of molten magma coming up from the core of the earth.

The Center’s crowded with people speaking various languages. Gazing around at the photographs and maps, I begin to get a sense of what transformations have been wrought. The Toutle River lahar made it all the way to the Columbia River, some sixty miles, and deposited enough ash and mud into the main channel to block shipping until it was dredged, weeks later.

We go on up the highway. Swanson explains how all the agencies wanted to get in on the restoration money that was being raised locally (and finally by Congress). They each put forth proposals: the Soil Conservation Service wanted to drop $16.5 million worth of grass seed and fertilizer over the whole thing, the Forest Service wanted to salvage-log and replant trees, and the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to build sediment retention dams. (They got to do some.) The Forest Ecology Mind (incarnated in many local people, the environmental public, and some active scientists) prevailed, and within the declared zone, zero restoration became the rule. Let natural succession go to work and take its time. Fred Swanson was trained as a geologist, then via soils went into forest and stream ecology research in the Andrews Forest in Oregon. He has been studying Mt. St. Helens from the beginning.

The Corps of Engineers went to work along the Toutle with hundreds of giant trucks and earth movers. Swanson takes a turn off the main road, just a few miles on, to a view of an earthwork dam that was built to help hold back further debris floods in the new river channel. The lookout parking lot had clearly been more of a tourist destination in the past than it is now, partly closed and getting overgrown with alders. Once the dump trucks stopped, the people didn’t come so much to look. But there it is, lots of earth holding back what further mud and gravel might be coming down — for a while.

The color of the dam, the riverbanks, the roads, is “volcano-ash-gray.” New bridges, new road, this has all been rebuilt. Swanson says that for some years after the eruption there was no access into the west side of Spirit Lake. To get closer to the lake and the mountain, people were driving a string of small roads north and around. You could drive up from the east to Windy Ridge. And then a new state highway from the 5 to the west side ridge above the lake got built. You still can’t drive to the edge of the lake — all pumice, ash, and broken rock.

The new road is an expensive accomplishment. It runs above the old Toutle riverbed along the hillside with fancy bridges, then into the Coldwater Creek drainage (I hiked down this when it was old-growth forest, and trail was the only access); makes a big curve around the head of the valley and does a long switchback climb. In that upper cirque of Coldwater Creek there are plenty of old gray logs lying tossed about on the ground. Between and around the logs the hills are aflower in fireweed and pearly everlasting Anaphalis margaritacea. Little silver fir three to ten feet high are tucked in behind the logs, mixed in with the tall flowers.

Finally pull up to the high ridge, now named Johnston after the young geologist who died there, and walk to the edge. The end of the road. Suddenly there’s all of Loowit and a bit of the lake basin! In a new shape, with smoking scattered vents in this violet-gray light.

The white dome peak whacked lower
open-sided crater on the northside,
fumarole wisps
a long gray fan of all that slid and fell
angles down clear to the beach
dark old-growth forest gone no
the lake afloat with white bone
blowdown logs
scoured ridges round the rim, bare
outcrop rocks
squint in the bright
ridgetop plaza packed with puzzled
visitor gaze

no more White Goddess
but, under the fiery sign of Pele,
and Fudo — Lord of Heat
who sits on glowing lava with his noose
lassoing hardcore types
from hell against their will,

Luwit, lawilayt-lá — Smoky
is her name

Pearly Everlasting

Walk a trail down to the lake
mountain ash and elderberries red
old-growth log bodies blown about,
whacked down, tumbled in the new ash wadis.
Root-mats tipped up, veiled in tall straight fireweed,
fields of prone logs laid by blast
in-line north-south down and silvery
limbless barkless poles —
clear to the alpine ridgetop all you see
is toothpicks of dead trees
thousands of summers
at detritus-cycle rest
— hard and dry in the sun — the long life of the down tree
yet to go
bedded in bushes of pearly everlasting
dense white flowers
saplings of bushy vibrant silver fir
the creek here once was “Harmony Falls”
The pristine mountain
just a little battered now
the smooth dome gone
ragged crown

the lake was shady yin
now blinding water mirror of the sky
remembering days of fir and hemlock
no blame to magma or the mountain
& sit on a clean down log at the lake’s edge,
the water dark as tea.

I had asked Mt. St. Helens for help
the day I climbed it, so seems she did
The trees all lying flat like, after that big party
Siddhartha went to on the night he left the house for good,
crowd of young friends whipped from sexy dancing
dozens crashed out on the floor

angelic boys and girls, sleeping it off.
A palace orgy of the gods but what
“we” see is “Blast Zone” sprinkled with
clustered white flowers

“Do not be tricked by human-centered views,” says Dogen,
And Siddhartha looks it over, slips away — for another
forest —
— to really get right down on life and death.

If you ask for help it comes.
But not in any way you’d ever know
— thank you Loowit, lawilayt-lá, Smoky Mâ

gracias xiexie grace