Drawing from the Blast Zone

By Jolie Kaytes

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Mount St. Helens

In the blast zone of Mount St. Helens, I have been drawing. With my eyes and with my pen I follow jagged ridge lines, the Us of valleys. I move through fallen forests, into snaking drainages, across billowy landslides, tracing contours, ticking textures.

The blast zone is the physical area most directly affected by the 1980 eruption of this Cascade Mountain volcano. I tour the blast zone with scientists and writers to learn about and experience this place and the research it has inspired. Above Clearwater Canyon, beside Meta Lake, at Windy Pass, I listen to scientists describe their work concerning geomorphological and ecological processes. I write notes about the key ideas the scientists study and their findings about change over time, about settlement and composure. I then stare widely outward and draw without looking down.

Clearwater Canyon
Clearwater Canyon.
Graphic by Jolie Kaytes.

This sort of drawing is called “blind drawing,” meaning you are blind to what is happening on the page and your gaze stays on the scene. I think it is more accurate though, to call these “seeing drawings,” because concentrating on the life beyond the canvas releases me to see more fully. Free from the concept of the “perfect” drawing, I draw what my eyes take in. Instead of crafting realistic representations of Clearwater Canyon’s steep slopes flanked with young conifers, or Meta Lake’s shimmery surface and cobbled bottom, or Spirit Lake’s assemblage of toppled trunks, I make marks in response to what the blast zone offers. I draw landlines. Swoops and squiggles form Clearwater Canyon. Flecks and crosshatches make Meta Lake. Cascading strokes pool and shape Spirit Lake.

The blast zone affords expansive views of faraway rocky ridges, rippled ground, and forest skeletons woven with new green. Before the May 18, 1980 eruption, however, this landscape was dense with old growth vegetation, a thick fabric of foliage ribboned with streams, dotted with lakes. At some trailheads, I am told, you could not see all the way up or down to your destination, as you now can. You might anticipate topography based on a map, the undulations of tree tops, or from distant vistas, but ultimately you’d need to shuffle atop plush copper duff, move through emerald canopy light, to learn the rise and fall of the land. To see a lake, you’d need to wander under a sky of needled branches until you hit water.

Amid the prospect, exposure, and sweeping scenes of the blast zone, drawing orients me since it involves a kind of place-based witnessing that allows me to slow down and take in. The loose, imprecise big picture views I create evoke the tumbled trees, raw ridge lines, and shifting streams of the Mt. St. Helens landscape. They do not show particulars. However, the process of making them spurs me to further contemplate particulars I’ve learned from the scientists: the wind-borne spider webs that settle upon and enrich infertile ashy earth; the pocket gophers that survive the blast and bring nutrients to the surface through their tunneling; the lupines that alter the soil and help foster biodiversity across the blast zone. Through drawing, I become alert to the latent, the lingering, and the little, and simultaneously question prevailing features, patterns, and transformation.

Image Gallery: Mount St. Helens Line Drawings by Jolie Kaytes

Click any image to view slideshow with image titles:

I opt to make seeing drawings when I am awed, when words don’t come, when I seek an unselfconscious interpretation of my surroundings. I consider them visual notes. To do the drawing I fly the scene with my eyes, and my hand—holding the pen—follows. When it feels like I have thoroughly traveled the scene, I stop drawing and look down. It’s always a surprise to see what is on the page. Sometimes the image is startlingly literal. Sometimes the image communicates qualities that are felt rather than seen. Delicate dashes convey the calm where water once flowed. Glissading lines speak of the swish of a lake lapping logs. Similar to composing a photograph, creating a drawing demands that I focus on the moment, though it is more of a soft focus, a broad gaze without a central emphasis. And, unlike photography, I do not have the option to snap and scamper. I must stay put and observe.


The work of science calls for rigorous planning and patient observation as a means to discover, elucidate, or investigate phenomena. I ask John Bishop, an ecologist who has studied the mountain for 20 years, specifically how “sight” functions in his research. “Most of our measurements and actions involve sight—to assemble equipment, to read our instruments, to collect field data,” he says. At Meta Lake, the visual approximation of plant cover may tell of the soil’s capacity to hold water, alder’s tenacity, sword fern’s flexibility, the spring seep now gone. Watching what emerges from ash-covered forest has led botanists to more deeply comprehend the complex root networks underfoot, the intricacy of the invisible. “Of course,” John continues, “a great deal of methodology in science is given over to visualizing with technological or analytical tools, like microscopes and statistics. We use these sorts of methodological tools at Mount St. Helens, but we also spend time just looking at things, scanning the landscape, taking in visible patterns and wondering what might cause them.”

While my drawing process is clearly not science, it reminds me of the field science happening at Mount St. Helens in that it prompts observation and invites inquiry. The scientists conducting research on the mountain often use what they observe as a source for questions, whose answers may enable them to understand what guides and governs this landscape. Writing in the journal Conservation Biology, James Tolisano reflects “that observational data, whether statistically valid or not, can lead to interesting ideas that can form the foundation and promise on which rigorous scientific thinking emerges.” Through observation, a scientist might establish a point of view, a perspective, an insight.

Ghost Lake
Ghost Lake.
Graphic by Jolie Kaytes.

After I leave Mount St. Helens and return home, I decide to add color to some of my drawings. I start by laying light, monochromatic washes across the paper. As I continue, I think about the different moods kindled in the blast zone, the blue-gray quietude conjured on ragged rock beneath Loowit Falls, the giddy comfort called forth by puffs of pumice and the honey scent of lupine, or the shivery sorrow stirred by wind as it whirls through a forest of standing snags. I use subdued tones to allude to these various moods and to accentuate the open-ended feeling of the landscape.

Reviewing the seeing drawings, both the rendered and the black-and-white versions, I recall what I saw, along with the personal stories told in this landscape. They are pensive stories about depression, death and loss, family struggles, fading passions, recovering hope. Christine Colasurdo, author of Return to Spirit Lake: Life and Landscape at Mount St. Helens, says these sorts of narratives are what this landscape invokes. The mountain, ruptured and spilled out, invites release. There are charged narratives lodged everywhere. “The mountain can take it,” Christine asserts softly. People pour their stories across the blast zone and invisibly, invariably become part of this place.


The act of sketching without looking lets me respond to and engage with the blast zone more than I would otherwise. The silent exchange between me and my surroundings unfolds on the canvas and I experience and learn the place anew. This kind of learning reminds me of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe approached science. His way of science, notes environment-behavior researcher David Seamon, focused on “an intimate first hand encounter between student and thing studied. Direct experiential contact.” Goethe described his methodology as “delicate empiricism.” Seamon explains this as a calculated effort to “understand a thing’s meaning through prolonged empathic looking and seeing.” Fundamentally, Goethe integrated intuition and reason—shared qualities of the arts and sciences—to gain awareness of a given subject. Since Goethe’s time much has been written about the overlap between art and science. Essentially, the practice of both necessitates an ability to see, interpret, and reveal. There is control and a relinquishing of control, a state of deliberation and vulnerability that ultimately opens space for discovery and connection.



The seeing drawings I create are neither art nor science, although they echo characteristics of both. They are more like spirited imprints of this landscape, impressions suggestive of the blast zone’s dynamism, its capacity to draw out people’s stories, and its power to draw us in.


In the blast zone of Mount St. Helens, I have been seeing.




Jolie Kaytes lives in Moscow, Idaho. She bike commutes daily to Washington State University in Pullman where she is an associate professor of landscape architecture in the newly formed School of Design and Construction. Jolie’s teaching, writing, and images integrate disciplinary perspectives and focus on recognizing and celebrating the complexity of landscapes. She is particularly interested in how landscapes are represented, how design can be used as an environmental advocacy tool, the role of landscape architecture in food systems, and the Columbia River Basin.

View “Permaculture: Applying Ecology at Home,” a narrative slideshow by Jolie Kaytes and Paul Charpentier appearing in Issue 26.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.