100 years ago today

The long-awaited commemoration of the centenary of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic has come and gone. But what most people do not know –and few will commemorate- is that the forces of Nature that created the Titanic disaster were minor compared to what happened 52 days later on the opposite side of North America in an isolated, volcano-strewn valley on the Alaskan Peninsula. Just as that valley struggled to escape the clutches of a harsh winter, the earth began to tremble. Then, on June 6th, Mt. Katmai, one of five active volcanoes in the area, awakened. What followed next would become the 20th Century’s largest volcanic eruption on Earth and the sixth largest ever. The display of Nature there was far more remarkable than the Titanic not only because of its pyroclastics, but because not a single human died, although many animals were not so fortunate.

Over the next three days, three cubic miles of hot ash and lava spewed forth, but not from Mt. Katmai. The eruption, 30 times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, actually drew on three volcanic systems, and instead of Katmai’s blowing its top, it caved in and the eruption blew out a vent created by a weakness in the valley floor six miles distant. Afterwards, what remained was a pile of rubble 300 feet high and almost a mile in circumference (later named Novarupta), a 40-square mile formerly lush valley now blanketed with ash 700 feet deep in places, and a shorter Mt. Katmai.

The explosion was heard in Juneau, 750 miles away. In nearby Kodiak Island, day suddenly turned to night; residents, under a foot of ash, could not see a lantern in front of them for days. Clothes left outside in Vancouver, Canada, disintegrated from the acidic fall. A massive ash cloud passed over Virginia June 10th, and later Africa. A haze darkened the sky over most of the Northern Hemisphere for days.

It was not until 1916 that Robert Griggs, a botanist with the National Geographic Society, led an expedition into the valley to see what had happened. There he discovered a two-mile wide caldera in Mt. Katmai, so he assumed that to be the source of the eruption. (Only in the 1950s was the source found to be Novarupta.) Later, as Griggs peeked over a high ridge, he saw a valley filled with thousands of smoking fumaroles, vents formed by snow evaporating beneath the still-hot ash. The name he gave the apocalyptic scene, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, remains to this day, although the fumaroles have long since ceased smoking. The only puffs of smoke seen today are at Novarupta, if you climb it and look hard enough.

Unlike Mount St. Helens, where the surrounding area recovered within a few years, the Katmai valley still has a long way to go; recovery is evident only on its fringes. Today, it still resembles a moonscape, but when seen through sunglasses reveals a spectacular Kaleidoscope of colors, the result of the various minerals from the several volcanic systems involved in the eruption. Williwaws, sudden, violent windstorms, intensified by gravity and armored by the whipped ash, move down from the cold mountains to the sea at velocities of up to 100 miles an hour, reducing visibility -and personal stability- to near zero. The few hardy backpackers who each year venture into the valley retreat to its edges at night to seek refuge, but the options are few due to a century of ash blown up slopes 1000 feet from the pre-1912 valley floor, obliterating the coves. Non-human life in the valley is rare; what creatures do venture onto the valley floor risk becoming confused and trapped (as I once did, temporarily, during one of my four hikes in the valley in the 1990s) by the impassable, deep chasms formed by underground rivers of snowmelt off the glaciers on the nearby volcanoes cutting through the ash from the bottom up. The main river through the valley was appropriately named Lethe by Griggs, inspired by one of the rivers in the underworld of Greek mythology, the "river of forgetfulness”.

Past visitors to the valley have included NASA astronauts who rehearsed there in the 1960s for the moon landings because of its resemblance to the moon. The best known visitor was Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2005 film, Grizzly Man. Timothy and his girlfriend, Vicky Scott, met their tragic deaths in Katmai in 2003 during an encounter with an idiosyncratic –or hungry- brown bear just a few miles from where I pitched my tent in the 1990s.

A journey today to Katmai –now a national park- is not especially difficult, but it is a strenuous one once you get there. A comfortable jet ride to Anchorage, a smaller plane to King Salmon, a float plane to Brooks Camp, and finally a school bus ride along a 23-mile dirt and gravel road takes you to the edge of the valley. Although most visitors return later in the day, Novarupta is a two-day hike away. To climb what is left of Mt. Katmai takes another few days. So, six days after mingling with a bustling urban crowd, you could be standing alone on top of Novarupta, with no one around for miles, surrounded by the purest silence and natural beauty one could possibly experience, unless, of course, you happen to encounter a williwaw, a hungry grizzly bear, or the next eruption.

I long planned to return to Katmai this year for the centenary of the eruption, to stand atop Novarupta and toast Nature. But other priorities now in my life will keep me away. Nevertheless, with the memory of my four journeys to Katmai indelibly imprinted on my mind, I shall offer that toast from home, and forever relish that pure silence amidst such awesome splendor created by Nature’s sometimes violent forces, knowing that she is not always against us, especially when we learn how to live with her.

Letter to Mayor of Clovis NM about Diesel the dog

Honorable David Lansford
City Hall
321 N Connelly
Clovis, NM 88101
(575)769-7828    FAX: 575-763-9227

Dear Mayor Lansford:

I am writing to you in response to what I have read about the recent tragedy in your city involving the dog Diesel, who has been condemned to death. I know I am intruding on your time, but in this age when we were all so instantaneously connected, I believe that if we know about and feel for something, we have an ethical duty to speak up.

I do not know the facts involving the hapless Diesel’s fate other than what I have read on the Internet, and so I will not pretend to know them. But even if the worse of what I have read is true, what I have to offer is even more relevant.

I will defer to others better prepared than I to offer the legal arguments to spare Diesel his death, e.g., he is only a dog doing what dogs do, this was an Act of God, etc. What I have to offer really has nothing to do with pleading for his life for his sake. It concerns compassion for those people who would blame themselves for an accident, an act of God; compassion for those who are involved in the killing chain after the accident, and compassion for those in your city and around the world who know of Diesel’s fate, but are helpless to do anything, and suffer as the result.

As for my first argument, we humans are unique in the animal kingdom in that we instinctively at first blame someone else (e.g., the dog) for our own acts, even accidents. Sooner or later, we will realize our own mistakes, even though they were accidents. If the dog is dead, we have no one left to blame, and so that guilt will be locked up inside of us forever. But if the dog lives, one day, for whatever it is worth, we will forgive the dog, and that very act will start the healing process for us to forgive ourselves, maybe for our mistakes, but more importantly for being human. And with the dog dead, we are then burdened by two layers of guilt. I have lived through this myself, so I know.

As for the second argument, I actually feel compassion for those people in our municipalities assigned the job of killing innocent creatures simply for their natural behavior. (This is why some even mistreat the hapless condemned animals, i.e., to give themselves justification for their acts: “look at the dog now: he/she is vicious,” they always seem to say, like reading from a script.) This pattern of the entire chain of events leading to the killing, starting with our “Dangerous Dog Acts” or discriminatory breed-specific legislation and ending with the dog’s death, reinforces the pathways in their brains to seek vengeance instead of truth and justice, pathways that apply to everything in their lives, and not just their 9-5 jobs of killing dogs simply for doing what dogs do. I realize that they act in the interest of public safety, but surely there are better pathways in our acts and brains to achieve that and fairness, too. I admire Supreme Court Justice Robert Alito simply because he understands these things about our being custodians of animals and is not afraid to find some reason in the law to show compassion, often as a lone dissenter, in all the animal-related cases going to the court.

As for my third argument, if Diesel is killed, some in your city, and even more beyond, will feel satisfaction that punishment has been served. If that is the case, they are the ones to be pitied, not Diesel. But many, many more in your city and far beyond will suffer as the result, helpless bystanders in a multiple tragedy. I really don’t think that the good citizens of your city want that. Most of us have never been to Clovis, maybe even never heard of it. Do you really want the first impression of people about Clovis to be one of vengeance instead of justice, punishment instead of forgiveness, death instead of life?  I do not think so.

That is all I can offer. I wish there was more to say to save Diesel and the many other animals we humans treat as property instead of living, feeling creatures whose lives have as much meaning to them as our lives have to us.

On behalf of Diesel and those humans who would benefit by sparing his life, thank you for reading this letter.