J. Lewis Payne pops the lid on one of the vintage barrels—a mix of surplus military metal and heavy-duty cardboard—stacked in a WSU barn that once housed moose, elk, and woodland caribou. The drums look rather dusty and nondescript, but they hold an unusual treasure: ash from the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens—and left largely untouched for the past 40 years.
The ash is quadruple-bagged and tagged with hand-written labels noting collection sites. Most came from the rooftops of Eastlick and Heald Halls. But there’s some from Pullman’s Lincoln Middle School, too, as well as at least one bin simply described as coming from “Yakima.”
Payne—the caretaker of the ash as well as the 800-acre Hudson Biological Reserve at Smoot Hill, where the cache is stored—reaches down into one of the drums and scoops up a handful. “It’s like there’s no weight in my hand,” he marvels. The ash feels powdery and fine, like pastry flour or powdered sugar, but is very light gray in color. It’s soft, cool, and dry, and smells faintly of wet cement and—oddly—dried mushrooms.
Today, nearly 100 barrels of Mount St. Helens ash are stacked in two kennels of the barn, which—Payne points out—used to be home to Morty, the moose featured in the opening credits of the CBS series Northern Exposure.
Payne’s lived at Smoot Hill since 1994, when he was a research assistant at WSU. He came to Pullman as a doctoral student, studying under Richard “Dick” Mack, now a professor emeritus of ecology in the School of Biological Sciences. Shortly after the eruption, Mack and his graduate students worked quickly to gather ash for future research projects. “There was a prediction of rain,” Mack says. “And I knew we needed unadulterated ash.”
One of his students, Stewart Higgins (’80 MS, ’84 PhD Sci.), a now-retired senior scientific assistant with WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, collected samples in Yakima. Mack used some of the ash for research through the mid-1980s, particularly studying its effects on vegetation. The rest has been stored, tightly sealed, for safekeeping—and largely without much interest. The fact that it’s here and available is “not widely known,” Mack says.
In fact, “To the best of my knowledge, only two people in the last 20 years have come to look at the ash,” Payne says, noting both were from the United States Geological Survey. “It’s a resource that needs the right project.”
When the sky fell: Forty years ago Mount St. Helens blew, etching memories of Washingtonians from Vancouver to Pullman.
“It was raining ash” (Stories from WSU faculty, staff, and alumni)