Abstract volcanic explosion

Photograph by ullstein bild / Getty Images

Molten Heart

words by willow defebaugh

How do volcanoes—their dormancy, eruptions, and everything in between—compare to the temperaments of the human heart?

“No one’s ever completely broken. It’s just a matter of how much has to fall apart before the ember of life is exposed to air.”

Charles Eisenstein

Dear reader, how is your heart? Is your fire burning brightly, or are your embers growing dim? Are you finding yourself overly exerted, your days brimming with activity? Perhaps you are experiencing pressure building, ready to erupt. Maybe you are feeling burned out completely. I have felt all of the above at varying times this past week. And so my mind has been dwelling among some of Earth’s most primordial beings, those who know about such things: volcanoes.


Volcanoes are portals. They are openings to the inner workings of our planet, vents through which magma—made of molten rock, crystal, and gas—bubbles to the surface due to gaseous pressure and the magma’s lightness relative to the rock around it. If it reaches the surface, an eruption unfolds. In milder cases, this might look like a fountain: the magma becoming lava as it hits the air and eventually hardens. Layer by layer, this lava amasses into mountains. Other eruptions are explosive, depending on magma composition and how much pressure has built up.


History is littered with the ashes of these ancient forces unleashing their fire and brimstone upon the world. The perils they spew include not only lava flows, but pyroclastic avalanches of rock and toxic gas traveling 450 mph; volcanic mudflows; and volcanic ash, laden with jagged fragments of rock and glass that can be deadly to inhale and can even block out the sun and cool the Earth by increasing its reflectivity. When we think of volcanoes, we tend to think only of this destruction left in their wake—but they spout more than chaos.


Volcanoes are also nature’s engines of creation. We have them to thank for life as we know it today; over 80% of the Earth’s surface was formed by volcanoes, the very land on which we walk. Their explosions carve out mountains and craters. But over time, the rivers of molten rock that they unleash upon the world—drawing up nutrients from the earth below—break down and give way to nutrient-rich soil: fertile ground on which life has thrived across millenia.


It should come as little surprise, then, that volcanoes are omnipresent on this planet; around 1,350 potentially active volcanoes exist on Earth, across every continent. The majority of volcanoes can be found in what’s known as the ring of fire: an area that spawns from the tip of South America, up the western coast of North America, across the Pacific to Japan and down to New Zealand. 160 of them are in the United States. Twenty volcanoes are likely to be erupting as you read this newsletter. Some eruptions are quiet, others loud; each can be a revolution.


Like humans, volcanoes exist in varying degrees of activity—and propensities to erupt. Volcanoes categorized as active are those that have erupted recently or are currently erupting. Dormant volcanoes, meanwhile, have not erupted in a long time; giants who have slumbered for thousands and thousands of years, and yet may still awaken, magma still flowing beneath the surface. Lastly, extinct volcanoes are not expected to ever erupt again—though even those have been known to surprise us. Even the forces that forge our planet need time to rest


I don’t think we are meant to be blazing all the time, setting the sky aflame. Volcanoes are not constantly erupting. There are times that demand we unleash all our might and fury, and others in which our eruptions may be more generative, expansive. Both shape our world, a process that involves both destruction and creation. If you feel like your fire is burning low, have you considered the possibility that it’s supposed to be? Perhaps you’re in a period of dormancy. Even still, magma flows through your unseen cracks, light underneath—molten at your core.

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