Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1980.
People who visit the Grand Canyon say they are often overwhelmed by its singular beauty, and by a sense that the universe is very large and very old, while they are correspondingly small and insignificant.
I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon, but I understand how a trickle of water can slowly carve a deep chasm out of solid rock, and I know what it’s like to feel irrelevant. At the age of 50 years and 357 days, I find myself waking up almost every morning with the realization that my life has been very short and will be shorter yet. Time has reduced me, and soon enough it will erase me altogether. I also find myself considering what I’ve accomplished, and whether anything I’ve done has had an impact that truly matters, or will last longer than my allotted days on earth. This ruminating is not due to age alone, although the feeling has heightened with age. I have always felt dissatisfied with myself, even as a young man. Sometimes it feels as if my life is littered with half-done debris—unfinished novels, unrepaired holes in the walls of my living room, friendships that unexpectedly faded away, a basement full of unopened moving boxes.
“What’s in those boxes?” I wonder. “Why have I dragged them behind me from house-to-house all these years, only to leave them lying fallow?”
I suspect many people feel similarly small and unimportant at least some of the time, although they don’t always talk about it openly.
When I was about 22 years old, I was invited to dinner by a geologist. I can’t remember her name, but I remember her story, and how it was that she first came to feel inconsequential. She was working on a mountaintop with three other people about 8 miles north of Mount St. Helens the morning it erupted. As luck would have it, she and two of her co-workers decided to drive down the mountain that morning to get breakfast.
One, a photographer, stayed behind.
On their way down, at 8:32 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, Mount St. Helens exploded with the force of a 24-megaton atomic bomb. It was an unusual event, even for a volcano. Instead of blowing upward, it blew out laterally. The north face of the mountain collapsed in a massive rock avalanche. Nearly 230 square miles of forest was blown down or buried beneath volcanic deposits. A toxic cloud of superheated gasses and ash swept across the landscape, travelling at speeds of up to 670 mph.
Suddenly the geologist and her friends were in a desperate race for their lives. As they careened down the hill in their Jeep, she bravely leaned out the back window, photographing the leading edge of the explosion that was chasing them.
They passed other drivers.
Some of them were going slowly.
Others lost control of their cars, and went off the road.
They all died.
So did the photographer who stayed behind. He stood at their encampment on the mountaintop, photographing the ashen cloud as it rolled toward him. When it got too close for comfort, he dived into the back seat of his car, where he was consumed by the volcano’s heat and ash.
The geologist who told me this story spoke of the enormity of the volcano’s destructive force in a near whisper, almost reverentially, like you and I might speak in church. She bowed her head, and cried a little. She spoke of the fury of nature, how it is thoughtless and uncaring, random and cruel.
She said the volcano made her feel like a tiny speck of dust floating in an immeasurable universe of stars.
She said she felt insignificant and weak.
Even then, at a time when I was filled with the enthusiasm and energy of youth, I understood, although I didn’t shed a tear.
I would now.
The Pleiades are 440 light years from Earth.
Sometimes I go outside into my backyard in the late afternoon and look at the mountains to the west, wondering what it would be like to photograph the thing that was about to kill you. Would it be frightening? Exhilarating? Comforting, if only because you had the rare privilege of knowing the exact time and means of your demise?
More often, I go outside into my backyard at night and look up at the stars. I don’t know much about astronomy, and can only name a few constellations. One of them is the Pleiades, a small cluster of stars also known as the Seven Sisters that was formed about 100 million years ago. Astronomers estimate that the Pleiades will survive another 250 million years before it disperses. If anybody’s alive then, they won’t see the cluster break up until long after happens because its stars are 440 light years from the Earth. Light travels at 186,000 miles a second. It’s almost impossible to imagine a universe so large that it takes light 440 years to traverse it. Harder still to imagine that the universe is much, much bigger than that—perhaps 28 billion light years in diameter—and that some scientists believe it is still expanding, not into empty space, but into nothing.
How can it be possible for space, which is itself mostly empty, to be expanding into an absence of anything? What is this nothingness that is capable of absorbing the growing expanse of everything?
No wonder we crave the comforts of our homes, where our space is well defined and comprehensible, and we don’t feel tiny and lost.
Last night, I remembered the unopened boxes that are stored in my basement. I walked downstairs and stood looking at them for a few minutes. I imagined myself cutting through the packing tape with a knife and lifting the cardboard flaps. I imagined sorting through their contents, keeping what’s important and giving away what’s not. I imagined myself accomplishing something.
But I couldn’t find the energy to do it.
Maybe tomorrow, or next week, I said to myself.
But I’ll definitely get to it. I’d like to know what’s in those boxes.