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In Step With Eric Wagner: Journey Through Mount St. Helens Blast Zone―40 Years Later

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

By Laura Lee Bennett

Wagner’s book is an impassioned ode to the scientific method and the irrepressible resilience of the natural world."—Ben Goldfarb, Author, UW Press

On November 11th, 10:30 am at the Old Redmond Schoolhouse, the Redmond Historical Society welcomes writer and biologist Eric Wagner, who will discuss the resilience of the Mount St. Helens ecosystem, following its giant volcanic eruption in 1980—now known as the greatest natural experiment in Pacific Northwest history. Based on his book, After the Blast: The Ecological Recovery of Mount St. Helens, the author takes us on a journey through the blast zone. He explores not just the surprising ways plants and animals survived the eruption, but also the complex roles that people have played, all while showing how fascinating Mount St. Helens still is, 40 years after the blast. Wagner is speaking courtesy of Humanities Washington.

We caught up with Eric for a bit of Q&A.

RHS: How old were you when Mount St. Helens blew in 1980? What were you doing when you heard the news?

Eric: I was actually just two when Mount St. Helens erupted, so I don't remember it at all. I'm told that the eruption could be seen from Astoria, Oregon, where I grew up. My first memory of Mount St. Helens is going on a hike there in 1986, or thereabouts. I think we were on the Johnston Ridge (west) side of the blast area. I remember it being very hot and dry and dusty, and drinking a lot of white grape juice. I also remember my dad having eventually to carry both my and my sister's backpacks!

RHS: What first prompted or inspired you to write about Mount St. Helens? Was it based on news stories, personal experience, or...?

Eric: I was pointed to the idea by an editor at UW Press who was interested in a book on Mount St. Helens since the 40th anniversary of the 1980 eruption was approaching. I'm a seabird biologist by training, and so more of an ocean person, but I love the mountains and found the idea of spending time around Mount St. Helens and learning more about it really attractive. Five years later the book was done! Way past deadline, of course….

RHS: Were any non-native species discovered in the "new" ecosystem? If so, to what do you attribute this phenomenon?

Eric: Oh, there are many non-native species at Mount St. Helens. It's just kind of the nature of the beast―species move around, humans help move them, humans move through Mount St. Helens spaces and bring other species with them, etc., etc. One of the most interesting examples of this phenomenon is the rainbow trout in Spirit Lake.

RHS: What is the most intriguing part of your investigation of the recovery of this ecosystem?

Eric: Ooh, tough to choose just one thing! I suppose the most intriguing part was learning just how idiosyncratic the response was all over the mountain. There were very few blanket statements to be made―things that happened in one spot didn't necessarily happen in another. So I guess in the end the most intriguing element was learning just how important it is to look closely at a place for a long time and learn as much as you can.

RHS: You've been giving this talk through Humanities Washington for the last two years. What questions do audiences most frequently ask?

Eric: People tend to ask about wolves at Mount St. Helens (watch this space!). They ask about logging and its effects on the post-eruption landscape. There's also a lot of memory sharing, i.e., people telling me where they were when they learned of the eruption. I love learning all the different ways that people relate to the mountain.

RHS: Will Mount St. Helens erupt again?

Eric: Absolutely! I mean, it erupts about every 140 years on average, so we'll be due in a little bit. It might not be a catastrophic eruption like the 1980 one—perhaps more of a dome-building eruption, as in 2004–2008. There are lots of ways for mountains to erupt.

RHS: What does the future look like for this ecosystem?

Eric: The future of the Mount St. Helens lies in the reestablishment of large conifers. You can see this process beginning on the Pumice Plain and in the Debris Avalanche areas. Big firs and hemlocks and cedars and such are starting to come back. Once that happens, the mountain landscape will be more or less enfolded back into its surroundings, much the way it was before―and then it will erupt again, and everything will change!

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