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Presence and Place

Rick Seifert
On Place (May 2022)
Inward Light

When I tell people I was on Mount St. Helens on May 17, 1980, the day before the massive eruption that left fifty-seven dead, the first question they ask is, “Why?”

To me, those questions seem like one question, which has one answer. Our sense of “what a place is like” – wherever it might be – is shaped by “why” we are there, which reflects “where” we are cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually.

My reason for being on the high northern shoulder of Mount St. Helens, at the aptly named Spirit Lake, on that glorious spring day forty-two years ago, still defines
what it was like for me – but only for me. I don’t know what if would have been like for you.

But then you wouldn’t have been allowed to be there at all.

For weeks, Washington State’s governor, Dixie Lee Ray, had ruled a vast area surrounding the volcano to be
off-limits. But she finally caved – for that one day – to the demands of gun-toting property owners who threatened to challenge the sheriffs’ roadblocks. These owners of summer cabins at Spirit Lake demanded a day to remove their possessions before the expected eruption. They feared their cabins might be flooded.

If only.

As a reporter for the Longview Daily News in Southwest Washington state, I was assigned to report on the carefully monitored cavalcade to the lake that day. My job was to interview the cabin owners, their law enforcement escorts, and three “special cases” who had been allowed to remain for weeks inside the “Red Zone” at the lake. One was the legendary curmudgeon, Harry Truman. He owned and presided over the Spirit Lake Lodge – along with prolific families of cats. The other two were Portland State University students – a young couple – granted permission to photograph and document the ominous, growing bulge on the mountain’s northern flank.

In short, I was at work. My resulting story, to be written the next day, needed to be worthy of the people I interviewed. As it turned out, some twenty hours after these interviews, the three “residents” would be dead, buried beneath hundreds of feet of volcanic debris. Within minutes, perhaps seconds, the lake I saw on Saturday, would be buried on Sunday at 8:32 a.m. by a “new” lake whose bottom would be above the surface of the old one.

The other fatalities Sunday occurred elsewhere in the devastation.

What I “remember” about that Saturday at Spirit Lake is shaped by what subsequently happened – not just Sunday morning, but over the months that followed – more eruptions and the threat of cataclysmic flooding. The flood of debris and sediment sludge could have entombed Longview and neighboring Kelso. It would have clogged the Columbia River, backing up its current to Portland.

Our reporting on those dangers helped prevent disasters that could have been far, far greater than what we experienced May 18.

Through all this, what I remember from that distant day at Spirit Lake was the ground literally trembling beneath us, the calm splendor of the lake, the youthful enthusiasm of the doomed couple monitoring the bulge about to be blown away, and Harry’s grumbling about the disruption to his solitude.

Throughout the experience, I never stopped to meditate on any deeper meaning of the place or that moment in eternity.

I was not “transformed” or enlightened by those four or five hours. The weeks and months that followed were a frenzy of writing and reporting with my colleagues. We barely had time to fear for ourselves and our loved ones. Family, neighbors, and friends were among the hundreds who evacuated, based on what we reported. (The paper’s staff would win a Pulitzer for its work.)

Only weeks later did it occur to me how close to death I had come. I recall briefly falling into the egotistical folly of asking whether I had been spared for some purpose.

Still later, my experience instilled in me a humility dictated by geologic time, by nature’s immense pent-up power, by human vulnerability and ignorance.

The questions and answers about that majestic place have taught me that “place” is the creation of a multitude of perceptions. They vary with time, circumstance, and experience.

“Place” is as much an extension of each of us as we are of it. It is as much a measure of “where” we – and it – are in the eternity of creation, spirit, and being.  ~~~

Rick Seifert, a retired journalist, is a former clerk of Multnomah Monthly Meeting (NPYM). While he remains a member of that meeting, six years ago, he helped found a small independent worship group, Hillsdale Quakers, in southwest Portland, where he now worships. He volunteers on behalf of a local residential hospice and works to help unhoused residents of Portland.

Mount St. Helens erupted explosively five more times in the weeks after May 18, 1980. It will continue to do so for all time. This photo was taken on July 22, 1980, by Mike Doukas of the U.S. Geological Survey. It is in the public domain.

near death self-awareness Mount St. Helens

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