“Life finds a way.” This is a saying we may hear many times whenever the world around us seems bleak, divided or uncertain. Sometimes it seems like the more we say it, the more we have reason to. We look around and see nothing but destruction. How could so much fear and doubt possibly bring about a better future?
On May 18th, 1980, a two-month series of nearby earthquakes set Mount St. Helens off in a deadly volcanic eruption. The mountain collapsed on its north side, causing the largest documented debris avalanche in history, and was left with a vast crater.
It caused billions of dollars’ worth of property damage; homes, bridges, highways and railways were buried or reduced to wasteland. 520 million tons of ash crossed the state and coated cars that sat a thousand miles away. The dense surrounding forest was leveled within six miles of the summit and millions of animals were lost.
The initial impression that scientists had when they viewed the disaster was grim. Charlie Crisafulli, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said it looked like “all vestiges of life had been snuffed out.” It could take more than fifty years for the barren landscape to start its crawl to recovery.
Life, however, finds a way. Ants, deer mice and pocket gophers began burrowing in the ash. Robins and sparrows were attracted to the freed, open space. Moss species that often thrived after wildfires found purchase. Bramble and vines spread. Particularly resilient wildflowers called prairie lupines returned one by one; within just four years, thousands of them had spread across the plot. Five conifer species that supposedly should have taken generations to sprout are there at this very moment.
Altogether, these biological legacies transformed the ecosystem. Even if later eruptions interrupted the process, life returned again and again with a hopeful persistence. It’s a lesson that could apply to other damaged ecosystems, and to whatever desolation we see in our own lives.
We may not see the silver lining right away through the cloud of ash. It may take more time and patience than we would prefer. Inspiration, resources and help might need to come from unexpected sources. We may feel like our steps toward renewal are too small, but every one is just that: a single step. One step is all it takes to start a journey.