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Ramblings of a Ranger: Lassen Peak's eruption, Mark Twain and other Cowards!

Updated on November 18, 2012

Life in a National Park

From the Summit Lake Ranger Station Log Book, Lassen Volcanic National Park: September of a year (end of the summer ranger season): I suppose others will write in this log book after I leave- should I be fortunate enough to return next year...it will be here to write in, again... from last Sunday...to today, the park has experienced a tremendous fire season...I fought on six wild land fires in 8 days...intense feelings, intense exhaustion, plans to leave for home (SoCal) Wednesday or Thursday, it rained hard at Summit Lake yesterday. It's cool, smoky, lots of moisture and haze, very autumnal...that sweet, bittersweet sadness hangs in the air- it's my last day. Hard for me to say goodbye and go on my way, endings always have been difficult for me. Ranger 533 out of service for the season.

Is everybody crazy? Is it really the end of times? Sure are a lot of people seeming to talk about it. How could the world be ending when another glorious day, another autumn calls out for enjoying? As far back as I can remember, and through most of human history, peoples of the world have been predicting the END of this world, seemingly forever. It seems cowardly, you know, to be kind of expecting or wishing for the end of it all... and all those nuclear warheads, still waiting, built for just such an opportunity. What is UP with the human race? Mark Twain, America's sharp-minded, wise and beloved writer, keen observer of the human condition, once wrote: The human race is a race of cowards, and I am not only marching in that procession, but carrying a banner. Apart from how funny that statement is , and its beauty (in the first part of the sentence, Twain despises the human race, then pulls a 180 and puts himself squarely in that very procession, a banner carrier), is the fact that it is so true! Not a one of us hasn't acted like some slinking coyote at one time or another, and often to those we love most. So what is there about humans that seemed cowardly to Twain? What personal failures did he see in himself? He relished human nature with all of its messiness, had a strong understanding of our humanity, but he obviously saw our faults, saw his own faults.

There are too many reasons for, or examples of, human cowardice to list in one short article. Greed: the incredibly disgusting amassing of ridiculous wealth; power and control over others, over all things; the ability to despise and hate; the willingness to enslave, to categorize, demean and label. And the way we view animals, use animals, in so many cruel and horrible ways. Giant factory farms... and a steady stream of video showing the cruelty humans deal to our doomed food products. Then we have the audacity to say that a person is 'acting like an animal', subhuman, animalistic; what does that say about how we view and treat animals, when we are doing the real damage? Strange how we compare the worst of human behavior with animal species that don't even carry all the baggage and harmful ability that we do. I wrote it in the previous paragraph...slinking like a coyote. I'd say that most of the humans I've known, me included, don't have half the self respect and dignity that the average coyote carries... then I have to live in a place where a bunch of yahoos every year go out and slaughter as many coyotes as they can, calling it sport, slapping each other on the back and pretending they are ridding the world of some evil... such cowardice.

"It's the end of the world as we know it, it's the end of the world as we know it, it's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine!" say the words of the pop song. Please don't get me wrong, in the case of some huge political or environmental upheaval, I do know that it is important to have a plan and be prepared if conditions worsen, but still, it feels wrong to advocate for some dark disaster. And, what kind of 'end of the world as we know it' world are we actually talking about here? Just the end of the world of humans? Or the whole damned thing? What about children and nature, the myriad species with which we are blessed to share this blue ball, swirling through the cosmos?... and then on the other hand, if there are millions of planets among the billions and billions of stars, is one earth gone really such a big loss? Well, it is to me, of course. Maybe it's an asteroid or a meteor, some suggest. Or is it the more surgical removal of the human race, the rest left to jostle and compete back into some pre-human balance through some nasty mutated virus... or, the near destruction of the surface with that old stand-in, nuclear war? No one knows for sure, that's for sure! But, still, a lot of people talking and wondering about it. Guess that's part of the fascination, but it still sounds like a bunch of coward's talk to me.

Here's a REAL end-of-the-world story: that is, if you'd been up on the side of Lassen Peak during the 1915 eruptions. Lassen woke from slumber after 27,000 years, awoke in 1914 (think WWI time frame) with a shaking steam explosion. More than 180 explosions followed and by mid-May, 1915, a 1000-foot wide crater had been blasted out near Lassen's summit. Then, on the evening of May 14, 1915, glowing blocks of lava could be seen rolling down the peak's flanks, even from as far away as Manton, 20 miles to the west... those folks must have had a sight, an end-of-the-world feeling. You know, how people gather to watch a wild land fire, maybe coming at them, but still far away, talking and planning what to do next. Like that. By the next morning, a glowing dome of dacite lava (lava heavy in silica) had welled up and filled the volcano's crater.

Late on the evening of May 19, a large steam explosion caused the dacite dome to fragment, and a new crater formed. Glowing blocks of hot lava from the dome fell on the summit and snow-covered upper flanks of Lassen Peak. These falling blocks caused a half-mile wide avalanche of snow and volcanic rock that swept down the steep northeast face and over a low ridge at Emigrant Pass and into Hat Creek, a distance of four miles.The hot lava blocks broke apart, melting snow and generating a mudflow of volcanic materials called a lahar, a fast moving fluid-semi-fluid mix of muck and mud and trees and rocks and dead chipmunks and insects and literally tons of other materials, just roaring along. Most of this stuff was deflected northwestward at Emigrant Pass and it then flowed seven miles down Lost Creek drainage. Even after coming to rest, water was pouring out in huge volumes from both the avalanche spread down Hat Creek and the lahar covering seven miles of the Lost Creek drainage. There were six mostly unoccupied cabins destroyed by these events, and a few people suffered minor injuries while escaping. It sure would be different if this eruption happened today... and heck, I'd call in sick and be right on scene to see something like that. With so many more people around the area today, compared to 1915, there would sure be more of them (or US!) in harm's way.

All of this hullaballo was a lead up to the main event. Late in the afternoon on May 22, 1915, after two days of relative quiet, the top of Lassen Peak exploded in a powerful eruption. Broken rock fragments and pumice and ash were blasted into the air. Volcanic ash and gases rose in a huge column more than 30,000 feet high.People in Eureka, 150 miles west, could see the column and fine ash rained down at least as far away as Winnemucca, Nevada, 200 miles to the east.

The weight of all of that pumice falling onto Lassen's northeast face caused a high-speed avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments and gas, called a pyroclastic flow, and it roared down the volcano's side, devastating a three-mile-square area. Melted snow transformed the pyroclastic flow into a very fluid lahar that rushed down Lost Creek for nearly ten miles, all the way to Old Station.

That's some real end-of-the-world nature stuff going on out there. Today, when you visit Lassen Volcanic National Park, and walk around that northeast side from the Devastated Area parking lot, there are still fascinating signs of the damage done from those eruptions. And there is nature, busy reclaiming and repairing all of that damage, but it takes time.

This person says: I've done the math and the world will end on such and such a date, that one believes God speaks truthfully, only to her. That bumper sticker says: car unmanned when the rapture happens. Over here, someone hordes weapons and ammo and food stuffs and rambles on about the 13 tribes and thirteen religions, look at the Middle East, it's all happening. Science warns of destruction of species, and the collapse of whole eco-systems, the global warming of the planet and the changes in weather patterns it causes; then there is the burgeoning human population of billions of mouths to feed. Or, maybe it's a paradigm shift, a new enlightenment for all humankind, or the end of the Mayan calendar, a total realignment of the planets and our spiritual selves, or total chaos and anarchy. Whatever is or is not about to occur, the same old muttering along or something truly 'earth shattering' (forgive the pun), it's a fascinating time to be alive.

Men come and go, but earth abides, it states in the Bible, in Ecclesiastes... to me, those are comforting words. The human race has always been a mess, the world's always been a tough place... ask people and they say, "The world's a mess!" Yes, sure, but nature abides, it will survive, as well as will some of us, I suppose, in the case of some environmental, natural, or human-caused upheaval of planetary consequences... a 'brave new world' to be sure.

There are many chances for us each to be brave in this world; for every cowardly act, there must be some act of heroism, or sheer will, to keep it all in balance, yes? The best heroes, the most interesting ones, also have flaws, are conflicted. Life has to be challenging and difficult, in order to triumph. Whether we are heading for an ending, or some bright new dawn, there is much each of us can do to make earth some better place. But still, I will tell you that each of us has been in coward in life. It's human nature, I suppose, but how we have learned and grown from these experiences, or turned inward and mean, in reaction to our worst, cowardly life events, says a lot about each of us, our outlook on life.

So, we all keep marching along on a life journey, but if every person and every religion has a plan or a thought or a vision about the end of the world, then mine is that God created this incredibly imaginative and complex and exquisite planet teeming with life and beauty and danger, and it's taken billions of years. And it's not about to end ,and if I am granted the chance to reach old age, real old age, I'm thinking I will be right: we'll still be muddling along. Look me up in 50 years, if the world isn't gone. In the meantime, skiing and running the hills and planting a garden and growing wildflowers and writing and painting and loving others and seeing sunsets, carrying a strong presence for the nature side of things, despite whatever dastardly deeds I have ever done, that seems the right way to value the earth, to give a nod to the Presence that made all this possible.

I suppose we should all forgive ourselves, set goals to do better, be better, and get on with the business of living. "The human race is a race of cowards, and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner," wrote Twain. It's comforting to know that I, that we all, have such fine company in that parade.

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    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I guess we are all in that parade of Mark Twain's...some in the lead, some in the middle and those bringing up the end. Fascinating hub! I have never been a believer in the predicted end of the world scenarios because so many of them have come and gone. At some point I suppose the law of averages will win out and it will happen. The Universe is vast and our little planet Earth will hardly be noticed if it ceases to exist.

      The Lassen Volcanic eruption was the end of the world for insects, animal and plant life in its way. But not quite! They are captured in the lava, etc. and will eventually become something else. So does life really end? I don't think so. It goes on although in some other guise.