Apr/May 2005 Nonfiction

Lady of Fire

by Lisa Ohlen Harris

I was sixteen, eating a good Sunday breakfast, when the windows shook. From the front yard we saw the mushroom cloud rising to the north, right over the home of our neighbors down the hill. We watched the cloud grow and the sky darken as the day went on; by evening, gray ash fell over Oregon like a late spring snowstorm. I listened to the news. Mount St. Helens had erupted. In fact, it had exploded. Some people hadn't made it off the mountain. It seemed like a creepy thought, but I couldn't help wondering—just for a second—if human remains were mixed with the fine ash that coated our car and lawn. Dad told us that although the ash looked soft, it was powdered pumice and could scratch the car's paint. Every day for two weeks, he rinsed our car with water from a bright green garden hose.

Six weeks later, in July, I saw the volcano's destruction for myself. I took the train north, traveling alone for the first time, to visit my grandparents in Seattle. We passed through an area near the Toutle River where Douglas fir trees lay like logs on the ground, pushed over all in one direction, naked under a blast-blanket of gray. St. Helens' ash was thick here, the same ash that was piled up in parking lots and back fields throughout the northwest. As I gazed out the window, I saw my own reflection superimposed over the black and white landscape. I looked like the main character in a book I was reading—a girl running away from home without a clue where she was going or what life held for her. When the train poured us back into the lush greenery of southern Washington, I looked out the window, saw color again, and forgot about my mirror self. I knew who I was and exactly where I was going. I was on my way to see Grandma and Grandpa; Seattle was only a couple of hours on up the rails. The ash fall had been light there, washed away by rain soon after the eruption.

I'd been to see my grandparents many times, but never on my own until then. Their home was the same as always, but without my brothers and parents there to fill the space in the house, I noticed details. I saw the way Grandma had the teacups arranged in the china cabinet—all the handles lined up in exactly the same direction. I saw how the artificial grapes under the glass-topped coffee table were turned to hide the mangled parts I'd pulled off and tried to eat when I was three.

In the living room hung an oil painting of a mountain, snow-capped, with a lake at its base. I knew this painting well; it had been on the living room wall since before I was born. Aunt Svea painted it when she first came to Washington from Sweden. This was Mount St. Helens. The "before" picture. The painting didn't seem to reflect Grandma's usual tidiness. I mean, the real St. Helens was all caved in and steaming, covered with ash, so why did she keep the outdated painting up on display? I would have expected Grandma to get out her oil paints the very afternoon of the eruption and do some touch up work.

I was a teenager; I saw symbolism in everything, but I didn't look deeply enough. Take that pink photo album, always there on the bottom shelf of the bookcase. That album still held pictures of Uncle Norman's first wedding, his first wife. Once when my young cousin asked me who that lady was in the picture with her daddy, I hadn't known what to say. But Grandma knew. "That's Dotty," she said, and my cousin, disinterested, turned the page to the pictures of her own mother's wedding.

Svea's painting wasn't behind-the-times, outdated after the eruption. It depicted a slice of Washington state history. I'm sure Grandma knew this. I can imagine that while St. Helens was erupting to the south, Grandma sat in the living room for a while by herself, just looking up at the pristine painting. Pressure and heat had been building deep under that perfect snow-capped peak even as Svea was cleaning off her brushes and listening to the birds sing in the trees around Spirit Lake.

If it were my house, I thought, I would have taken down the painting. Or at least put up an "after" shot next to it, showing St. Helens as it truly was. But then, I was only sixteen.

While I was in Seattle that summer, my grandparents gave me a living-history lesson. I wore my new red overalls the day they took me to Tillicum Village, a touristy island getaway where a mix of northwest tribes put on a program of food and fun. We were going to eat a salmon dinner and watch the Native Americans stomp and hoot, all fancy in feathers and paint, dancing out the legends of their peoples. As we walked up from the boat to the longhouse on a path made of crushed clamshells, Grandpa told me that the Suquamish tribe used to camp and hunt on this island. Before Grandma and Grandpa were born, when our own pale ancestors were boarding Viking ships, the northwest Nations were here on this island, canoeing the Puget Sound, fishing and hunting, raising children and grandchildren. There was no mistaking me for an Indian maiden, but I felt that I'd somehow inherited the history of the northwest tribes just by living on the Pacific coast. I didn't tell anyone this; it was too silly. But even the city that gave my immigrant grandfather a livelihood in the New World—that very city—took its name from the Suquamish Chief, Seattle. Native history and mine blended at some point, somehow. Walking up the clamshell path, I pretended that I was wearing moccasins, stepping noiselessly over the path of my ancestors. I sat in the audience with my grandparents, an observer, as the Native Americans at Tillicum Village danced out history and sang their legends.

The stories would have been something to snicker at if I were sitting with a bunch of my high school friends. But I was with the grown-ups now. I listened. An old woman, Loowitlatkla, Lady of Fire, tended the only fire in the world. The nations came to her to get embers for their own fires: the Puyallup from the north, Klickitat to the south and east, also the Yakima, and the Cowlitz. So far the stories weren't getting too funky. Loowit—this fire-guardian lady—was faithful and kind. The Great Spirit saw this, and he rewarded her with eternal life. Loowit wept, because she did not want to live forever as a wrinkled, bent old woman. The tale was getting ridiculous, but I saw my grandparents' eyes on the stage, respectful, and I listened without smirking.

The Great Spirit couldn't take back the gift of eternal life, but he did what he could to patch things up. He made Loowit young again, and beautiful. This wasn't so far off from the fairy tales I grew up with, though my parents never connected the story of the ugly duckling or Cinderella with real mountains and rivers. Then the legend went over the top. These two sons of the Great Spirit fell in love with extreme-makeover Loowit, competing for her affections. The brothers argued and fought, and apparently, when you're a direct descendent of the Great Spirit, it's easy to get carried away. The boys lobbed fire and stones back and forth across the Columbia River. They burned villages. Entire forests went up in flames. This is about the time that I really should have established my independence from group-think and at least raised my eyebrows in protest. But I was hooked. In my mind's eye, I saw reddish tan, Paul Bunyanesque guys with braids tossing fiery torches from mountain to mountain. The boys devastated the landscape, creating the cascades of the Columbia River Gorge. The Great Spirit—pushed to his divine limit, I guess—got angry and struck down each of his sons, turning them into mountains. Loowit shared the blame and was struck down too. The three lovers were frozen where they fell; the boys became Mount Hood and Mount Adams, while Loowit became the beautiful St. Helens with her symmetrical cone, frosted in snow.

I have to confess here that I didn't connect Loowit's legend with what was going on in my world that summer. It wasn't until years later, reading white-man history of the northwest, that I put it all together, fitting the legends from Tillicum Village alongside what I was reading in the journals of Lewis and Clark, piecing them into a frame with my own memories of volcanic ash and train rides.

Around 1800, Loowit blew her ashes on the Nespelem of northeastern Washington. The tribe was afraid of the dry snow, so they sought the Great Spirit, praying and dancing instead of collecting food for the winter. But the end of the world didn't come, and winter did. It was a hard season, and the Nespelem Nation was not prepared.

The Lewis and Clark expedition saw St. Helens in fall of 1805 or maybe early winter 1806, but they didn't mention any steam or ash. What they did record was quicksand and a clogged channel down at the Sandy River—surely evidence of the eruption that messed with the Nespelem a few years earlier. Following the eruption in 1980, the mouth of the Columbia River was clogged with debris. Different river, but the description and the volcano are the same.

In the early winter of 1842, settlers and missionaries recorded a "Great Eruption" from St. Helens. Large ash clouds rose and fell over the area. Milder explosions continued on and off for 15 years, into the 1850s. It sounds like what was in the news during my college years, after the Great Eruption of 1980. And it will happen again.

I have a snapshot, taken that day at Tillicum Village. Teenage me is sitting on a gray, driftwoody log surrounded by seagrass. I'm wearing bright red overalls and a logger-style plaid flannel shirt in red and gold, the profile of my face caught in that pensive moment as I looked out over the water. Way behind me, on the same long log, is my grandmother, sitting at a different angle, looking back at the island. She seems to be a smaller reflection of me, almost like the endless images in an angled department store mirror, going back, back, back.

Behind us, very close to the rocky beach, evergreens line the shore—those trees must have been seedlings when the ash-snow fell on the Nespelem. On down the slope, at the water's edge, boats are docked. I can count nine masts getting smaller and paler as they extend back into the mirror, until the last one is so far distant that it hardly stands out in gray-blue relief against the blue-gray Puget Sound. I don't know who the boats' owners were, or whether they had seafaring ancestors from Japan, or the Maldives, or the British Isles, but I do know this: there is a whole lot of history crammed into that one off-center snapshot taken some July day in 1980.

The print is bent, so the colors crack and separate at my red-overalled waist. Grandma's gone now; my own daughter looks more like the girl in the picture than I do. Like Svea's painting of St. Helens, this snapshot captures only a thin cross section in time.

It's a portrait of boats and trees, of driftwood and of women descended from Vikings. In the foreground, sitting on that long gray log, is the red and golden reflection of a girl who will someday realize that this day is connected to all other days. The girl in my story—that color image superimposed over the black and white driftwooded landscape—she's wondering what life holds for her, looking out over the water as if she can see her future.


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