I meet my son as I usually do, at the end of the driveway. I watch for the yellow and black of the bus and then the flashing lights that start just as it comes over the crest of the hill. Most days, he gets off the bus and walks right past me; doesn’t acknowledge my presence until the bus is gone. Today, after the bus is out of sight, he turns to me and says, “You know, there’s more things in the world that you can’t see than what you can see.”
“Oh?” I ask. “Like what?”
He shrugs his shoulders. “Things,” he says and runs off down the road.
I follow slowly, watching the mist blow between the alder trees and into the hemlock, happy that rain has returned and the cold snap is over. Ahead, I see him push the front door open. He leaves it ajar, and when I go inside, his backpack, jacket, and shoes are tumbled together into a small pile, and he is in the kitchen rummaging in the refrigerator for a snack.
Last night he would not fall asleep; something was bothering him. Finally, he asked me “Is it more likely a volcano will erupt, or we’ll get hit by a comet?” And before I could answer, he said, “I think it’s worse to get hit by a comet than a meteor, huh?”
We live in the shadow of Glacier Peak, one of the volcanoes of the Cascade Volcanic Arc. It is mostly hidden from view, visible only sometimes and from certain places. One must cry out quickly and suddenly to visitors: “There it is! Did you see it?” before it is obscured again. For most of the winter, clouds negate any chance to observe the mountain. Its presence is all around us, though. We walk the old lahars every day, and in the garden rocks bubble up from the dark, loamy soil. Our little log house is built atop volcanic debris, terraces of it; the volcanic eruption and the subsequent erosion formed our whole valley.
I can’t lie about the mountain. My son knows all about it. We hike near it, and we point it out whenever it appears, exclaiming over how pretty it is. “Look, look, look!” we cry. We work near it, building trails, managing wilderness. His dad, a geologist, always points out volcanic debris when we hike. We can’t deny the mountain’s existence. Since my son was in preschool, we’ve built volcanoes in the backyard, shoving a bottle filled with dish soap and baking soda into the ground, then letting him mound dirt around it, pour vinegar in and watch the “lava” ooze out the top and flow down the sides. “Do it again,” he cries afterward, again and again, until we give in. Sometimes he puts toy soldiers where he thinks the lava will flow, or cars, and yelps with delight when they’re engulfed in the goo and pushed down the side of his mountain.
Now he asks, “How will we take the cat with us if Glacier Peak erupts?” and, “Maybe we should grab the money jar,” the big heavy glass one we fill with loose change from our pockets. These are not things I’ve thought about.
“We’ll run across the street and uphill as fast as we can,” I say. One of us can grab the cat, I add. I tell him that the likelihood of a volcano erupting, or of us getting hit by a meteor, is low; neither has happened for a really long time. Eventually, he falls asleep.
My son is right to ask about the mountain. Glacier Peak is the volcano that keeps perfectly sane, grownup volcanologists awake at night; the one they lose sleep over, too. For too long, its remoteness within the Glacier Peak Wilderness has fostered complacency. The underestimation of Glacier Peak started as soon as white explorers showed up, though the Native Americans knew of its dangers. The local tribes considered the mountain a spirit, one that informed their daily lives; an integral part of their stories and legends. Glacier Peak was left out of the original mapping of the Cascade volcanoes, and was only added in 1850, after local tribes mentioned to geologist and anthropologist George Gibbs that “Takobia” or “Tda-ko-buh-ba,” — the great white mother, as they called it — “smoked.” But the mountain is set back in the wilderness, and people tend not to worry about it, not the way they do about other peaks in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, like Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, or St. Helens. Maybe they don’t know that Glacier Peak is barely 70 miles from Seattle, or that it’s been identified by the USGS as a very-high-threat volcano with inadequate monitoring. I know all this. I know that the USGS scientists struggle with government regulations, short seasons, and the difficulties of getting gear and people on the volcano to study it. But I don’t tell my son these things.
Plastic is what frightened me as a kid. Plastic kept me from falling asleep, and plastic woke me up at night. Its tenacity. Its durability. The way everyone loved it. It wasn’t the unseen part of plastic, so much as the seen, that disturbed me. The discards, the waste, the masses of it stuck in the chain link fences that divided my neighborhood. It was the bags and trinkets and wrappers scattered across the open fields; the stuff smashed against the sides of buildings.
What would happen to it all — where would it all go? I wondered. I feared we would drown in it all, suffocate. And there’s a bit of truth to that fear — just as there is to my son’s fear of the volcano. Since the 1950s, one billion tons of plastic have been discarded. This, I want to tell my son, is something to be scared of, to lose sleep over. Not so very long ago the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered: a giant, floating mass of plastic. No one knows for certain just how massive it is. It’s hidden, like the volcano, mostly unseen.
Last summer, while my son visited cousins, my husband and I seized the opportunity to climb the mountain behind our house. The trail is a steep, twisted mess of roots and rock, wet and buggy, and though we hike often with our son, this climb is beyond our parental coaxing abilities. It isn’t volcanic, this mountain, but rather 4,500 feet of sandstone thrust up from the near sea level valley floor. What I like best about the climb is the way I can lie down across the smooth, slanted rock near the summit and look over the edge, see our valley spread out before us. I can look across the valley to Glacier Peak, or straight down at our house. I can see the river bending and twisting through the rich farmland and thick-forested terraces. My husband and I laugh at foolishly built houses, those clearly in the river’s way. We wonder about the owners. Haven’t they been through a flood? Don’t they know the power of the river? Aren’t they aware of the danger?
What I like most about this perspective, though, is how reassuring it is. I lie on my belly and feel the warm updrafts rising from the valley below. Sometimes red-tailed hawks or bald eagles, or even crows float on the thermals in front of me. I think of how my son would like to lie across the rock, watch the birds, see the volcano as nothing more than a beautiful, snowy presence. Maybe he would find a comfort in that. When I look into the valley at our life below, when I glimpse the places we live and love, it all looks tiny and vulnerable, and somehow our seeming insignificance makes me happy. In my day to day life, I drive up and down the road, go to town, to the grocery store; I walk along the railroad grade behind my house; and I see what seems like a continuous onslaught of destruction. Logging, housing developments, trash tossed carelessly along the highway or purposely off onto forest roads; shot up cars and refrigerators sit in gravel pits; big black bags of garbage get shoved over the side of the road because someone won’t or can’t pay for pickup. And on the highway, there are always the long lines of headlights, as we all go up and down valley to shop, to work, to entertain ourselves.
But from here, I see more trees than clear cuts, and where the trees have been cut I see new trees emerging. The road seems empty, and I can barely make out town, much less the new housing developments. What I see is mostly wild. To the west I see sunlight shimmer off the waters of Puget Sound. Even this seems benign, though I know these waters are not exactly healthy, and the interstate corridor I look into is densely populated and growing. Maybe what I see from here is an illusion, or what I want to believe, and what I want to believe is that we’re going to be okay, really. From this perch I see hope for us humans, for my son’s future, the one he is trying to find his place in, a future full of unknowns, dangers, wonder.
I know I need to guide him through his fears, even though the most I can offer are predictions and statistics, odds and probabilities, the results of monitors and teams of scientists scrambling to decipher this and that. I will tell my son that the odds are low for explosions or impacts. I will tell him that, in all probability, the volcano will not erupt this week or next year; the meteors won’t get him, no black holes are going to swallow him or the planet up any time soon. But I can’t reassure him about the rest of it, about our future as a species. So what can I tell him?
What I want to say is, what a privilege it is to stand here on this mountaintop, to breathe, to wake every day and walk through the trees, to stand outside together on starry nights, to look at the planets and wonder. Whether we have seven days or seven decades is irrelevant in the long run, I want to tell him. What we have this minute is eloquent, mysterious, irreplaceable, and fleeting. Cherish this place, these mountains, this valley. I want to say, care for them, love them. Be curious and brave. The odds may be in your favor — or not. There may never be answers to your questions.
But children don’t understand talk like that. So maybe the wisest thing I can do is tell my son that I don’t know much at all. I’m not even good at figuring out what questions to ask; that’s what the very best scientists, philosophers, and theologians do. And I can tell him one of the few things I do know, one of the few things I can say with certainty: the odds were always against us. Not just our little family, but human beings, this planet, this universe. Our mere existence is phenomenal, our continuance even more so. Yet despite the 10,000 asteroids within striking distances, the volcanoes and meteors, plastic and floods, despite ourselves, we seem to carry on. Every day that my son returns to me after school feels like a miracle: in spite of cancers and viruses, bacteria and icy highways, he emerges from the bus to walk past me, down the driveway and into the house, healthy and happy, curious about everything he can and cannot see.