Wednesday, May 18, 2011


On this day in 1980:

[credit: Washington Post]

Mount Saint Helens lost approximately 1,300 feet of its height in the explosion. I was having Sunday lunch with my family at the Old Country Kitchen in southeast Portland.

I don't remember this particularly well (which is to say, not at all), having been one at the time. However, the legacy of the mountain's eruption in my own psyche as a child is a useful illustration of how historical memory can continue to inform our lives and dictate our emotions even when we do not personally "experience" a given historical event.

I should issue a disclaimer at this point that I was a jumpy child, prone toward worrying. (As opposed to the present, when I am a jumpy adult, prone toward worrying.) Nonetheless, the knowledge that nature could unleash fury of this magnitude in the seemingly solid, majestically inert mountains of my beloved Cascades was enough to unleash significant fear even in the absence of lived experience. I did not know personally what the mountains could do, but I knew, because I had seen the images and heard the stories.

Several years after 1980, my family was on a camping trip on Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens' neighbor to the south. We were taking a tour up at Timberline Lodge, the massive Works Progress Administration-era edifice located right at the tree line. I happened to be holding my mother's hand at the point the tour guide informed us that Mount Hood was not an extinct volcano, but rather was dormant--much like Mount Saint Helens once had been. Immediately, Mom says, my hand started to shake. I still remember riding down the mountain in Dad's truck, looking behind me to make sure the mountain hadn't exploded yet. Intellectually, I knew there would be warning signs and other indications, but emotionally, I was terrified.

On one level, this is a story about an amusingly high-strung child. On another, however, this is an example of the sort of reaction many of us have to that which we know without experiencing. This is historical memory. Another person, growing up in a different time and/or place, could have a very different set of inherited memories about what volcanoes can do. Hawaiian? Volcanoes spew lava. From Indonesia? Volcanoes can vaporize entire islands. Kansas? Explain this thing you call a "mountain." (Sorry; couldn't resist.) While this example deals with earth science, the principle is easily extendable. What is one population's historical memory regarding immigration? Industrialization? War? Race relations? And how will that differ from others'?

There are some facts about volcanoes--they erupt--that are more or less uniform. In reality, however, when Mount Hood blows, we can make predictions but we cannot know with certainty exactly what it's going to do. Mount Saint Helens can offer us clues, but Mount Hood's eruption will constitute something new and different. A broad analysis of the Cascade chain of volcanoes--comparative study--is likely to reveal more significant information than simply relying on our memories of 1980. Taking our study beyond the west coast of North America will likely be even more useful.

History is an important guide to the past. It gives us important, even vital, information about our future. It is not a crystal ball. We need the foundations of history upon which to build our predictions, but it does us little good to reduce the past to a single set of memories or a series of steps guaranteed to predict the future. When we absorb the lessons of the past, compare our historical memories and preserve a wide range of vision regarding the future, we will best serve ourselves and our progeny -- and our hands might shake a little less along the way.

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