2020 Honorable Mention – Gregory Gicewicz, Jr.

New Life

For there to be creation, there must first be destruction. For there to be light, there must also be darkness. For there to be life, death must be ever present. These contrasts are visible everywhere, from the earth below us to the stars above us.

Mount St. Helens, located deep in the heart of Washington State, beautifully illustrates these contrasts. Here, dozens of miles from any substantial human settlement, lies the most active volcano in the continental United States. Mount St. Helens, also known as Lawetlat’la to the native Cowlitz tribe, is most well-known for its 1980 eruption. This eruption killed 57 people and caused over 1.2 billion dollars in damages. An obliterated landscape and a 2 mile wide steaming crater were left behind. However, this eruption, along with the eruptions from the neighboring Cascade volcanoes, is crucial to the well-being of the ecosystem. The ash deposited by the eruption delivers minerals beneficial to plant growth, and the decimated forests provide new life the opportunity to grow, unhindered by already established trees. Already, less than 40 years after the eruption, vibrant forests and meadows are flourishing, hiding the scars from decades past.

Much in the same way that volcanoes deliver minerals and create space for new life, stellar nurseries left behind by cataclysmic supernova provide a fertile home for new solar systems to form. Elements crucial to life such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen are formed in the hearts of stars and sent out in these massive explosions, a cosmic analog to the mineral rich ash sent out by volcanoes. Dozens of these red fertile regions are visible in the core of the Milky Way. Grand nebulae such as the Eagle, Trifid, and Omega Nebula sprinkle the center of our home galaxy. It is in these nurseries that solar systems such as our own are forming. The exact same cycle of destruction and creation occurs in the sky, however here the scales are in light years as opposed to miles.

This was one of the most challenging images I have taken in my 8 years of astrophotography. Shot at exactly midnight on a warm summer evening, I originally did not think the weather was going to cooperate with me. The entire night the clouds teased the vista that lay in front of me, giving me brief glimpse of the stars and the mountain, but never for long enough that I could take an exposure. I had finally packed up and was moving back to my car when this view exploded in front of me. I sprinted back to my viewpoint, hastily wiped the moisture off of my camera lens, and recorded the image that you see here.