Heroes of Mount St. Helens

Heroes of Mount St. Helens

Reston resident writes about role of gophers.


Terry Jennings, of Reston, with her recently released book, "Gopher to the Rescue," about the role of the northern pocket gophers in eco-system recovery following a volcanic eruption. Jennings will be at the Reston Barnes and Noble on April 14 to discuss her book.

Among the smallest of the animals that live on Mount St. Helens, the northern pocket gopher has been credited with aiding in the restoration of Mount St. Helens. "Gopher to the Rescue," a newly released book written by Reston resident Terry Jennings, examines the role of gophers in eco-system recovery following a volcanic eruption.

"Gophers are not a very good subject to hook a story to, but the more I looked into their role at Mount St. Helens, the more I realized that gophers could be a hero," said Jennings.

Mount St. Helens, located in the Cascade Mountain range in Washington State and 50 miles northeast of Portland, is famous for its catastrophic eruption on May 18, 1980.

FOLLOWING THE ERUPTION, thousands of feet of ash, pumice and stone rained down on all the sides of the volcano, dramatically altering the landscape surrounding the mountain. Nearly 150 square miles of forest was blown over or left dead. A vast, gray landscape replaced the once-forested slopes of Mount St. Helens. Fifty-seven people died in the eruption and its aftermath, an estimated 7,000 big game animals (deer, bears and elk) perished, and 250 homes and miles of roads, bridges, and railways were destroyed.

Jennings had visited Mount St. Helens in 1981, just months after the eruption.

"The devastation was very difficult to understand," said Jennings.

When she was asked by her publisher, Sylvan Dell Publishing, to write a book about how animals react to a volcanic eruption, Mount St. Helens came to mind due to the immense amount of information that has been produced following the eruption.

"Mount St. Helens was easy to personalize because there is so much data about it. After the eruption, the mountain was largely closed off and became like a laboratory," said Jennings.

As Jennings began to do research about Mount St Helens, the scientists studying the recovery of Mount St. Helens asked if she had heard about the gophers.

The northern pocket gophers of Mount St. Helens are small creatures, eight to nine inches long, explained Jennings. Unlike the large animals on Mount St. Helens, the gophers, buried down in their burrows, survived the eruption. Following the eruption, the gophers tunneled out of their burrows and continued to dig. Their digging brought the fertile soil that had been buried underneath the ash back to the surface and broke up the hardened crust. If a seed, carried along by the wind, fell on a gopher’s tunnel, which had loose, more fertile soil, the seed sprouted and grew. Life began to spread.

"I don’t want to leave the impression that the gopher saved Mount St. Helens. It is just a small animal doing its part. But it makes such a cool story," said Jennings.

THIS IS THE FIRST BOOK Jennings has had published that bears her name. She has written many educational texts for children for a Smithsonian series. Prior to that, she wrote a column for The Connection.

"I started writing because I like to write. The Smithsonian position was a great gig and I got to do research about interesting topics. I also was able to talk to some really passionate scientists. To me, it was very interesting that these scientists were so passionate about their work. I wanted to share that passion, that engagement."

In addition to writing books, Jennings is assisting KC (short for Kool Cat), the first feline blogger, write a blog of interesting science facts. The blog has only been up for one month. The goal of the blog is to encourage children to do research and to be inquisitive.

"I hope the website will be of help. I didn’t want to do a website with just my books listed. I hope the website can be of value to kids," said Jennings.

Jenning’s blog – rather, KC’s blog can be found at www.kcswildfacts.com.

Jennings will be at the Reston Barnes and Noble on April 14 to discuss "Gopher to the Rescue."