Tranquility in Disturbance

By Ethan Shaw

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Given its tectonic position, maritime gales, and mountain lightning, the Pacific Northwest, where I live, is rife with the tracks and traces of all sorts of Disturbances. Scuffing about the Mount St. Helens blast zone, I sometimes find myself looking back at the ruptured volcano and saying, “You did this?” Study the trunks of those gargantuan Douglas-firs and redcedars in midslope old-growth of the Western Cascades: Those char marks are the tough tattoos of centuries-past ghost fires.

The track of Disturbance stays hot for years—millennia, even. I’ve wandered, wild-eyed, the blitzed spoor of lahars, squall lines, and infernos; it always seems to emanate some primal heat. Here: trees downed in one direction by volcano breath or cyclone punch. There: deadfall stacked willy-nilly, a graveyard of flame-killed snags that have toppled every which way by their own calendars. The timeline of Disturbance haunts me—the mowed-down aftermath of a tornado is one thing, but what about the storm’s foreshadow?

Mull the schedule of Disturbance, and you mull the birth and death of ephemeral cataclysms like glacial outburst floods and avalanches. In Time and the Art of Living, Robert Grudin notes that the shock of dramatic events at their climax utterly overwhelms our perception of their true temporal dimension, obscuring the memory of the early, subtle sparks that ultimately triggered them.

So: Where, when, does a thunderstorm begin? In the ascent of heated air through unstable atmosphere, or the catching-up of a cold front to a warm front—or is it the evaporation of brine far out to sea, the priming of an air mass with vapor?

Gary Snyder has written about ecosystems “tuned” by fire—a good word to use. Vegetation succession proceeding in “orderly” fashion needs the occasional shock and shudder to keep on whatever unfathomable course the planet’s abiding by in a given spot. Hard not to think of the retroviruses that seem to have tuned our gene pool across the millennia—terrible outbreaks, vast die-offs, and debris of the offending contagion woven into the DNA of the survivors. Or, on the scale of the individual: Just as a forest readies itself for an incendiary trial with years of drought or overgrowth, we set ourselves up, often unconsciously, for the occasional head-spinning disorder. We structure our lives with routines and plans, then inevitably contend with the unexpected, derailing trauma.

Succession and Disturbance, natural selection and mutation—these patterns of calm march and dismantling chaos haunt our world, echo even throughout the cosmos. Consider the Late Heavy Bombardment (just a theory): crazy coincidences of gas-giant gravitational fields sending asteroids slingshotting through the interior Solar System, bombing the inner planets and their moons. And how about the Big Bang itself—maybe the Disturbance to End (or Begin) All Disturbances?

If the beginning of the Universe was a swift, intense release of energy—a good-as-any definition of a Disturbance—this penchant for violent drama seems woven into the very framework of existence.

Joseph Campbell writes in The Masks of God of a widespread mythological motif: the Secret of the Two Partners, suggesting the yin-yang deal struck by the Universe’s forces of creation and destruction (and their symbolic deities). Something like that arrangement exists between Disturbance and Succession: Modern ecology doesn’t view the former as an aberrant disaster, but as fundamental and regular a landscape-sculpting force as its more incremental counterpart. The downburst topples the old spruce with a thunderous crash, and it doesn’t take long before the brambles whip up upon the trunk and a seasonal pool brimming with mosquito larvae and tadpoles gathers in its rootstock cavity. “Just right,” the Earth says.

Forests grow to photosynthesize, to cycle nutrients, to house and nourish creatures and orchids and lichens; also they grow to burn. Sometimes “regularly,” sometimes “rarely”—those human-scale measures. Sometimes the timber seems to leap eagerly into the flame, transfixed maybe by its unbelievable heat and its grand roar. Are forests home for trees, or are they home for fires? A tree knows how to burn just as competently as it knows how to manipulate solar energy; we human beings know how to die as well as we know how to eat, laugh, and make love. “Born to grow, and grown to die,” Townes Van Zandt sings.

And remember the multiple scales we’re dealing with: The individual lodgepole pine dies in the blaze, while the bigger entity it helps make—the lodgepole-pine forest—is given new life in the same flames, escaping the drawn-out death those understory spruce and fir saplings (now torched to embers) had promised. Upon destroying the Universe at the proper cyclical stage—the “moment of cosmic death,” as Alan Watts puts it—Shiva walks away, and from behind is seen (accurately) as Brahma, the creator of the next Universe.

Because of our particular biological perspective—and because of how easily our bones shatter, our bodies sicken, our hearts break—we comfort ourselves by searching for the phoenix rising from the ashes in all the world’s “disasters,” from plague to betrayal. But the Earth doesn’t sprout fireweed on volcanic ash to inspire; the Earth is equally inspired by the split-second incineration of a basin or two of ancient trees in glowing ash cloud. Of course we can stand up in the face of shattering upheaval: It’s the standing-up and falling-down that drive, like a pump, the bloodstream of the world.



Ethan Shaw is a freelance naturalist and writer based in the Pacific Northwest. Tantalized by landscape ecology, geomorphology, ecological succession, old trees, and the journeying of animals, he splits his time between the writing desk and the mountain trail, and enjoys bushwhacking in both physical and cognitive realms.

Photo of Mount St. Helens by Simmons B. Buntin. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.