At 10:37AM on the morning of March 22, 2014, an unstable hillside about 4 miles east of the town of Oso in Washington state gave way. The slide unleashed an avalanche of mud, trees, and rock which flowed over the North fork of the Stillaguamish River and covered one square mile of the valley beneath the Whitman Bench land terrace which rises 800ft above the valley below. In the earthy wake of the Oso mudslide were 49 destroyed homes, over a hundred missing persons, and what would eventually total 43 dead civilians.
There is some controversy about the degree to which some tangential logging in the area added to the likelihood of the Oso mudslide, but there is also a large degree of agreement that the mudslide was, if not inevitable, perfectly natural. Which is to say that there is no scapegoat to point to, no “cause” about careless “land management” to rally behind. Only the merciless reality of this wild earth and the full display of its power. What happened in Oso was simply an act of wild nature in the purest sense of the term.
Much of the hillside in Oso and the surrounding areas are left over from glacial deposits created as glaciers moved through the area during the last ice age. These hillsides are inherently unstable given their composition. As a result, throughout history and most certainly prior even to the invention of logging, landslides have been a common feature of the landscape, an intrinsic part of the natural processes by which this region has been shaped over countless thousands of years.
As soon as three years after the landslide one sees that things have simply followed the natural course of things. The freshly exposed soil from the slide has given way to the growth of new plant life. The river has settled back into its course as the temporary flood plain that emerged after the slide has settled. The only signs that civilization was ever here are the flagpoles which mark memorial sites and one lone house which has been left abandoned.
I will admit that looking out across the landscape and taking in the aftermath of the mudslide is, humbling, to say the least. It is a reminder of my smallness on the earth. It is a reminder of the indomitable strength of wild nature. It is a reminder of the hubris of man and the ultimate emptiness of all of his idols and his endeavors before the power of the earth.
As Jeffers has put it in his poem Hurt Hawks, “The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those / That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.” And there is indeed a certain defiance, an arrogance, a stupidity in building one’s dwellings in the pathways of the fury of the gods. The earth cares little for the aspirations of some ambitious primate and the pretensions of his decadence is rightly met with death and destruction at the hands of wild nature. But this wild nature, this wild earth, this merciless wild god of the world is also the one reality that we have.
Standing before the devastation of Oso is a reminder of that final, insurmountable reality, and of our place in that grand transhuman world. Certainly it is brutal, it is callous, but within and inseparable from this brutality is also beauty, integrity, wholeness. One might even venture to talk of a certain salvation, a deliverance from our condition as hyper-civilized Man, or a remembrance of what it might mean to understand our “humanity,” but conceived as one being among the webs of myriad things, and not in terms of the solipsistic stupidity of modern Man. On the wild god of the world Jeffers again writes:
“The world’s God is treacherous and full of
unreason; a torturer, but also
The only foundation and the only fountain.
Who fights him eats his own flesh and perishes
of hunger; who hides in the grave
To escape him is dead; who enters the Indian
Recession to escape him is dead; who falls in
love with the God is washed clean
Of death desired and of death dreaded”
– From, “Birth-Dues”