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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

What an ash hole

It’s like old times. More precisely, it’s like pretty much almost exactly thirty years ago.

I need to go through my old collection of vinyl albums to find the one by Jimmy Buffett that has the song “Volcano.” You know the one. Or you don’t. It’s the song with the refrain, “I don’t know, I don’t know / I don’t know where I’m a-gonna go / When the volcano blows.”

The song was on the eponymous album Volcano released in 1979 and it was inspired by the Soufrière Hills volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where Buffett recorded the album. For those of us in the Pacific Northwest, the song had a special resonance up to and during the eruption of Mount St. Helens in May 1980. I can remember going to parties in Seattle in early 1980 where it seemed like that was the only song anybody was playing. Back in those days there was no “shuffle” or “favorites” or “genius” or any of the other snazzy digital enhancements that have long since made the chore of getting up and turning the record over or putting one another on the stuff of ancient lore. People would listen to the song and you could see that bit of unease in everyone’s eyes. There was a sense that something big could or would happen with the volcano just down the road in Skamania County. And, while no one was predicting that it would pose any threat to Seattle, there was a palpable sense of not being sure just what Mother Nature could be capable of.

As it turned out, that apprehension was not completely unwarranted. Despite a “red line” area meant to delineate a safety limit, 57 people (including the parents of a friend of mine) were killed by the eruption—not to mention thousands of animals and millions of fish. Endless amounts of ash was blown east and blanketed eastern Washington. People in Seattle, who felt geographically close to the volcano, which was 96 miles away, felt strangely a little left out that people hundreds of miles away were getting the ash while Seattle, because of the prevailing wind direction, was getting precious little of it.

When you are talking about the force of an explosion that can blow off the north face of a mountain, 96 miles can seem too close for comfort. The current distance between me and Iceland, on the other hand, is something under 900 miles. That seems like a good safe distance. That’s pretty similar, as the crow flies, to the distance between Seattle and my birthplace, Bakersfield, which wasn’t bothered by Mount St. Helens in the least. Yet the recent activity by the mellifluously named Eyjafjallajokull is having a not unfamiliar effect on people in Ireland. For one thing, the volcano has been spewing ash for so many days that television journalists have0020finally actually had to start learning how to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull.

But the main effect has been to ground nearly all commercial flights in the northern part of Europe for close to a week. And suddenly Ireland started to feel like, well, an island. The Irish, probably more than most people in the world, are accustomed to jumping on a plane, sometimes on the spur of the moment, and jetting off to somewhere else. People routinely holiday in other countries and/or head abroad for business to the UK, continental Europe or North America. On an LA-to-Dublin flight, I once sat next to a young Irishman who was returning from a spontaneous long weekend in Australia where he knew no one and went nowhere except a pub. When planes are grounded, getting to those places can be long and arduous at best or impractical at worst. And there was talk of the airspace being close for possibly days, weeks or even longer. Some historians pointed out helpfully that, in the past, this volcano has continued spewing for a couple of years. Suddenly, we were all feeling trapped like the proverbial rats. While being denied air travel is not exactly a breakdown of civilization of Mad Max/Road Warrior proportions, it was close enough. People abroad who had been planning their itineraries with minutes to spare unexpectedly found themselves stranded with no clear idea of how or when they would get home. Like a massive electricity blackout or a flood or earthquake, it was portentous reminder of how fragile the veneer of technology and civilization really is. Would we eventually wind up with savage mobs fighting for a space on an outgoing ferry to France like the extras mobbing the vessels in the China scene from Roland Emmerich’s 2012?

Of course, people who were at home and had no plans to travel were more sanguine. For one thing, the eruption coincided with an unusually warm, clear period of weather. And despite constant news reports about the “ash cloud,” the sky has been reassuring blue, mainly because the particles that cause problems for jet engines are very high up and invisible to the naked eye. What was strange was the lack of vapor trails that are a feature of clear skies (when they occur) in the west of Ireland, a sign of the frequent traffic from Ireland to North America. And, in another reminder from 30 years ago, the sunsets have been particularly glowing.

So how has volcano anxiety been reflected in the popular culture over the years? Well, for a start, there have been no fewer than ten films that have carried the title Volcano at some time or in some context—although not all of them have been literally about geological phenomena. These range from 1926 (about Martinique) to 1950 (an Italian production with Anna Magnani as a volatile prostitute) to 1997, in which Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche cope with a volcano erupting right under Los Angeles. That same year there was another volcano movie that appeared to be a fictionalized version of the Mount St. Helens eruption. It was called Dante’s Peak and starred Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton. And in 1981 there was a based-on-actual-events movie about Mount St. Helens called, imaginatively enough, St. Helens. It starred Art Carney as the most famous real-life victim of the volcano, Harry Truman, who refused to heed the evacuation order and stubbornly remained in his house on the mountain. The volcano in the title of John Huston’s 1984 movie Under the Volcano is pretty much a metaphorical one. The film, based on Malcolm Lowry’s semi-autobiographical novel and starring Albert Finney, is set in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a mere 50 miles from the famous Popocatepetl volcano. Another titular volcano of note is the one on the remote Pacific island of Waponi Woo, which featured in John Patrick Shanley’s 1990 movie Joe Versus the Volcano. In that one Tom Hanks, having been given a terminal prognosis, decides to throw himself into said volcano. Shenanigans and romance ensue.

Perhaps the best volcano movie ever, though, is one that is the best in so many other categories. That would be Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Mount Doom in Mordor, after all, was a volcano and it covered most of Middle-earth in evil darkness. And, unlike Eyjafjallajokull, it could be dampened by tossing a mere bit of jewelry into it.

As I write this, Eyjafjallajokull seems to have calmed down and I am even seeing vapor trails in the sky again. But there is foreshadowing of more to come. As the reporters have dutifully informed us, like any good sequel in waiting, the Icelandic volcano has a bigger neighbor that is known for erupting within a couple of years after the first one.

-S.L., 22 April 2010

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