What it’s about
When Mt. St. Helens erupted on my sister’s eleventh birthday in May 1980, I was a preteen in suburban New Jersey. Washington State seemed very far away. But for the past 25 years I’ve lived within a few hours of the volcano, and Eruption provides new information and perspective on the most powerful natural disaster in the history of the United States. Steve Olson explores the lives of some of the 57 people killed that day, deconstructing myths that have arisen about blame and personal responsibility. He places the mountain in the larger context of the powerful timber industry, examining how the Weyerhaeuser Company influenced the forests around the mountain for more than a century. Ultimately, he argues, Mt. St. Helens eruption represents a transition point for the Pacific Northwest. Since the volcano erupted, resource-dependent towns have declined and tech-based cities have grown at a breathtaking pace. It’s geology, history, and storytelling wrapped up in a highly readable package.
What I liked
I love books that reconsider an event that we assume to be well understood and turn that understanding on its head. Olson paints a human picture of what happened at Mt. St. Helens before, during, and after the eruption. It’s a clear-eyed view of people trying to live their lives amid the machinations of industry and government, which sometimes operate against the public interest. He accurately portrays the political aspect of land use disputes in his description of the negotiations to create a national volcanic monument in the years immediately after the eruption. Easy to read, hard to put down.
“We ignore the risks we face so we are not paralyzed by dread. Only in retrospect does the extent of our willful ignorance become clear.”
“With the exception of agriculture, no industry has had a greater influence on the physical appearance, the economic prosperity, and the moral economy of America than logging.”
“Disputes are inevitable when it comes to the uses of public lands. Yet, for all that, the land remains. The creation of a national monument is a farsighted act for an often shortsighted species.”