Friday, October 24, 2014
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A mountaintop gone; a life remembered
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At 8:32 Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted. Shaken by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale, the north face of this tall symmetrical mountain collapsed in a massive rock debris avalanche. Nearly 230 square miles of forest was blown over or left dead and standing. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Twenty-five years ago Classical Music host Bill Morelock was a graduate student at Washington State University in Pullman. The day Mt. St. Helens erupted, Pullman was on the southern edge of the fan-shaped progress of the ash cloud as it drifted east. As dramatic as a 12-hour rain of volcanic ash and darkness in mid-afternoon were, the anniversary is always linked with and even overshadowed by a private spreading of ashes that day, and the loss of a friend. What follows is an elegy of sorts. A month after the eruption Morelock fled academia and began working in something called Public Broadcasting, another durable reminder of the day the mountain blew.

St. Paul, Minn. — Seattle, that great labor city, home of Dave Beck and big union shenanigans, of savory dark breads in Ballard smorgasbords, of fishermen and stevedores and roughneck sportswriters, is a boutique. There's everything here, but less, somehow, than when there was nothing.

Yet, even now, there are moments -- in early Fall for instance -- when the city is perfect. A bus ride is a meditation; the sounds of children shouting in the Montlake playground on the lowlands beneath the Capitol Hill rim are timeless; it could be 1928. Late enough for good apples, warm enough yet to find bumblebees in linden trees making a humble music. The moment lasts a day.

Then, the ferries on Elliot Bay--one to Bainbridge, one to Bremerton--crawl back and forth like white stitching on blue serge; the young jagged Olympics are dynamic, dissonant cadences ripped out of the sky; a stand of fir is uncommonly gorgeous; a common gull is a key, opening memory to a world now misty, now bright. A captive of this uncanny scene is tempted, defying irony and urbanity both, to consider the possibility of happiness.

Sydney Fortunato loved the city in these late September snapshots. She loved it madly, wholly. In return, she asked the city to lend her life a certain resonance. It must take her talents, which she considered thin; and her appearance, which she considered problematic (by turns ugly, then irresistible) and burnish them until there emerged a smoky warm logic to her accomplishments, a balanced, powerfully beautiful set to all her features.

The city was the frame within which she acted out her life. It had power to ennoble her if it only would, to raise her up, and to declare her existence to a discerning yet loving world. Only existence, she knew, could soften her fears, gentle her condition. Sydney Fortunato lived, and died, in what may have been the last snippet of time during which the light in a small storefront bookstore on an early autumn evening could still calm the soul.

None of it was enough. She was 29 years old in the Spring of 1980. She would turn 30 on the very day the next fall when the original actor-California governor would be elected president. Her life, her proleptic mind now, in May, absorbed and suffered from the strangeness of that event, and of the decades ahead. The city, the world, after all, hadn't enough love in it, enough reassurance to keep her here. The lightest load could break her back. The brightest news could make her weep.

After years of a rambling existence, common enough for her cohorts, of consorting with poets and revolutionaries and nuts, she had decided to learn a trade. Graduation from law school was a month away. She was editor of the law review, a fierce bohemian intelligence steeling herself to wear makeup and hose everyday and enter a downtown tower where decisions and money were made. Sydney Fortunato was about to have success, and she was scared to death of what she would have to give up.

May 18, 1980 was a Sunday. Two days before, Sydney Fortunato bowed before the fears and gave up everything. Too little hope, too many pills. Early Sunday morning word reached friends in Pullman, in Eastern Washington. That day, May 18, her ashes were being spread on Lopez Island in the San Juans, a favorite refuge. The drumbeats of radio newscasts that morning were pounding out Mount St. Helens updates. But no one who knew and had just lost Sydney Fortunato paid much attention; the media had trumpeted the mountain's imminent eruption for weeks. The seismic readings, the rumblings; old Harry Truman, the caretaker of Spirit Lake Lodge, refusing to leave no matter what the danger.

The landscape of this part of Eastern Washington is eccentrically beautiful, dry and austere, softly rolling treeless hills covered in spring with young green wheat. Late Sunday morning, a warm, bright day, a massive storm cloud approached on the prevailing southwest wind. Nothing out of the ordinary, since even in May the weather could go from 60 to snow within a couple of hours. Still, there was something odd about this cloud. There was no texture to it; no light or darker patches. It was a uniform charcoal.

It came on, inexorably, larger, wider. Finally, news that the mountain had erupted (sending ash five miles in the air) penetrated even to distracted minds, and shocking leaps of imagination connected that news with this alien thing, approaching. By one o'clock it covered the sun. By 2:30 it was dark as night, warm as a summer day, and raining, ash, from a great natural bonfire 200 miles away.

Sydney Fortunato, brilliant, gifted, terminally desperate, without hope, had said she felt a kind of impotence about her, to be heard, to make her life worth living, to be loved by another human being. On the day her ashes were spread in a cove of an idyllic wooded island, Nature spoke a loud eulogy, and turned hundreds of square miles, in the blink of an eye, into a moonscape, and ash fell, in places a foot deep, for twelve hours and four hundred miles to the east. Ultimately, like a tireless, mournful cortege a remnant marched up into the stratosphere and nearly circled the globe. The capacity of a pained imagination to grasp at symbols is epic. To one who knew of this bright, anguished life and saw it cut short, it seemed a proportionate response: the earth itself had felt it end, and commemorated it, with an event of historic, geologic dimensions.

Tune to MPR's Clasical Music Service on Wednesday evening May 18, when we feature Alan Hovhaness' Mt. St. Helens Symphony. Hovhaness was living in the Seattle area when the mountain erupted.

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