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July 19, 2005

The Poet and The Scientist: A confluence of values

Peter Schoonmaker, from the Illahee Society, tells me that the Forest Service’s Fred Swanson’s “Long Term Ecological Reflections Project” has teamed up with Kathleen Dean Moore’s (Philosophy Dept. Oregon State University) “The Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word” to provide week-long residencies at the Andrews Forest for essayists, poets, and other writers. (introduction here)

Recently the two invited poet Gary Synder and ecologist Jerry Franklin to Mt. Saint Helens for a May 17th hike. On May 18th Snyder and Franklin reported out in “Reflections, Report on the Mountain” in Portland. What a wonderful concept. Would that we could always see scientists and humanities practitioners working side by side in dealing with what scientist Franklin calls “social science,” the art of managing forests and natural resources. (See also, “Whither the Humanites in FS Policy Making?” ) Here is Schoonmakers’s summary:

Snyder / Franklin Summary
Twenty five years ago yesterday morning Mount Saint Helens blew 1.4 billion cubic yards of debris up into the air and another 2.3 billion cubic yards sideways, and into Spirit Lake and the North Fork Toutle River. Two hundred and thirty square miles of forest were knocked flat by the force of the explosion. Fifty seven people were killed, suffocated by searing hot ash in their lungs. Cities to the northeast of the mountain were covered in an ash twilight.

For the past few days, the media has covered the 25th anniversary of the eruption with stories of survivors, science coverage and flashy graphics. But what have we really learned from the mountain? Or what should we have learned?

Last night a poet Gary Snyder and ecologist Jerry Franklin shared some of the lessons they each have learned in their combined 100-plus-year relationship with the mountain. The evening was really the culmination of two days that Snyder and Franklin spent with a few scientists and writers on Mount Saint Helens and in Portland, organized by Oregon State University's Spring Creek Project and their Long Term Ecological Reflections program.

Snyder began by reading selections of his prose and poetry from his latest book, Danger on Peaks. It's always illuminating to hear poetry the way it sounds to its author. But Snyder revealed earlier that it's illuminating to him as well. He often uncovers new meaning in his work when he reads it aloud. Danger on Peaks itself had to be a learning experience for him, as he wrote it after being invited by USFS geologist Fred Swanson to visit Mount Saint Helens 56 years after he last stood on its snowy summit as a teenager. Snyder accepted, got reacquainted with the mountain, and wrote Danger on Peaks. The book and his readings last night arc from the perfect cone of the mountain sixty years ago to the 1980 cataclysm, which delighted him (finally, it's done it!) and saddened him (America's Fuji-san is gone). And then of course to its surprising transformation today. These changes mirror Snyder's geographic and personal peregrinations, always informed by lucid observations, whether he's watching a bunch of kids wash a truck or recounting his sister being killed by one.

Jerry Franklin picked up the theme of transformations and cataclysms with a blunt statement: the 1980 eruption was not a catastrophe! It was business as usual. The natural world is used to this stuff, does it all the time. Just not on our puny time scale. And another surprise: the hoards of environmental scientists who rushed up to Mount Saint Helens started out with the wrong assumptions. They assumed the apparent devastation meant they wouldn't see significant recovery for decades. Instead, when they stepped out of the helicopter on to the mudflows and pumice plains ten days after the eruption, residual plants had already poked up through the ash. Invasive species soon followed, and not just working their way in from the edges, but from thousands of remnant refuges that had escaped the full force of the blast - places that had been covered by snow patches, underground burrows, nurse logs riding the debris flow. And today it's a riot of recovery: patchy, messy, diverse, teaming with life. Franklin's take-home lesson from his Mount Saint Helens experience: humility. He and the best ecologists in the region got their scientific butts kicked by this mountain. He suggested we take this lesson to heart in how we approach the natural world, as scientists, managers and citizens. Don't be so sure you know what you're talking about. Shut up and observe. (Sound like a poet?)

Gary Snyder then rejoined Franklin out on stage and they talked for half an hour, starting with Snyder asking the scientist questions about the mountain, about old-growth forests, about what he's learned in the last forty years. Again, the big lesson was humility, and an insatiable curiosity and delight in discovery - as Franklin said of Saint Helens "we were like kids in a candy store." The media didn't quite get it at first. It was a catastrophe story to them. It was a recovery story to ecologists. Franklin also emphasized the importance of legacies, the things left behind - logs, snags, seeds, burrowing mammals and insects. What lessons apply from Mount Saint Helens to other landscapes? Sometimes the best management option is to leave it alone.

Franklin then asked Snyder his impressions and observations from walking around the mountain the previous day. Snyder replied with a word-picture of a landscape bursting with life: hundreds of little pools and ponds on the ash plains, amphibians, grasses, sedges, ferns, birds from the east-side and Puget Sound, beaver, deer, elk, predators, forty-foot-tall alder forests pushing up against gravel and ash plains.

Then came questions from the audience, some quick and pithy, with long, thoughtful answers, some long manifestos with appropriately abrupt answers. Both Franklin and Snyder seemed to arrive at a consensus that "leave it alone" was not the only answer to managing natural resources. For example, east-side pine forests carry huge fuel loads, and need to be thinned or they risk un-characteristically severe fire.

One question alluded to how one reacts to "natural" catastrophe (volcanic eruption, tsunami, fire) versus human-caused catastrophe (Hiroshima, 911, Rwanda). Snyder's observations on his reaction to Hiroshima and the current political scene clearly drew a line between the two.

Franklin emphasized that forestry - and by extension all resource management - is a social science. His job is to make sure that decision makers are well enough informed that they know when they're making a decision that bucks the science. Both were asked about the effect of global warming on Mount Saint Helens, and both poet and scientist circled back to humility: "We don't know."

Peter K. Schoonmaker

Posted by Dave on July 19, 2005 at 11:17 AM | Permalink


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