NOVEMBER 28, 2021
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN you learn that the place you’ve called home for many years carries inside it a threat that puts your health and the health of those you love at risk? The answers that emerge and the conflict that comes close to tearing a community apart are both heartbreaking and redemptive, emotions that Ash Davidson skillfully weaves throughout her debut novel, Damnation Spring.
The book centers on a logging community, where a 3,000-pound haul block can land on a man’s chest or a choker chain can snap and send logs the size of school buses down a slope. But at the heart of this story are families who, despite understanding the dangers, have a passion and pride for their livelihood. At 53 years old, logger Rich Gundersen almost empties his savings to buy his longtime obsession, the “24-7,” a plot of redwoods along the top of a ridge. It also happens to be a waste pit for herbicides used by his employer, Sanderson Timber Co. His wife, Colleen, wants a second child. She’s also witness to the birth defects taking place in their town. When she starts to believe that the logging company might be responsible for her losses, as well as the devastating births of babies with missing skulls and brains, she resists the purchase.
The family story plays out in the redwood forest along Northern California’s coast with its creeks, rocks, groves, streams, and the vibrations of saws, chains, and motors:
The forest was a maze. Between the fog and the sound of falling water, it was easy to lose your sense of direction, rare to find a spot where you could see farther than the next ridge. Men who’d grown up in those woods still got lost hunting in them. Walk in one direction for a few minutes, and the forest rotated. Before long you stood dizzy, like a child spun in circles, blinking with the sudden disorientation of having a blindfold removed.
Davidson’s knowledge of the logging industry and its communities guides the reader into the woods. The language, beauty, color, and sensory details of their lives and work are all brought to the page, enriching our experience and making us believe their truths. And if we do get lost, we’re only a page turn away from hearing a voice, catching a movement, a sudden flash of light that urges us to stay, prompts us to keep going.
Rooting for the characters in Damnation Spring — their unapologetic, protective, profoundly alive and kindred hearts — and understanding their complicated desires are made easier by the writer’s narrative style. The 1970s story runs on the multiple perspectives of Rich, Colleen, and their son, Chub. With every section break, we are given an intimate lens into each character’s views and perceptions, making it impossible to pick a side. Leaning into each point of view, the reader can access what is unsaid, hidden, unfiltered, a particular insight into the heavy but often quiet emotions of grief, guilt, and fear that underlie the text. The moment we are tempted to point fingers and pass moral judgment on a character, the unadorned truth confronts us: they are flawed and rebellious and can retaliate when rage consumes them.
We see interconnectedness: that a forest can be so strongly tied to a people’s livelihood, that a family can persevere and prevail over its harrowing circumstances, that a community can stand together in its affliction. Once Davidson has us believing their voices, we are caught in the complexities too. We are suddenly acutely aware of how difficult it would be to make any decision and how impossible it is to keep going knowing the brutal conditions under which these characters live. We are at once strangers and at home. A character opines:
[Y]ou shut down the grove, it’s not just us you’re hurting. This town lives off timber. You might as well line us up against the wall. […] You won’t find a guy that loves the woods more than a logger. You scratch a logger, you better believe you’ll find an “enviro-mentalist” underneath. But the difference between us and these people is we live here. We hunt. We fish. We camp out. They’ll go back where they came from, but we’ll wake up right here tomorrow. This is home. Timber puts food on our tables, clothes on our kids’ backs.
Colleen is just as eloquent about childbirth. We see firsthand the physical and emotional strength she brings to midwifery and also, inevitably, the loneliness, exhaustion, and sadness she feels at her own incapacity. Because Rich is determined not to get his wife pregnant again, for what harm another loss would do to them, he withdraws from intimacy –– the very thing Colleen longs for as she turns elsewhere to meet her needs. The parallels run deep.
Damnation Spring successfully translates the logging industry into an experience of the heart. Its conditions go beyond the danger such labor is known for by capturing the lives that are embedded in its existence and operations. It is a novel that accounts for the environment while highlighting the shared humanity between people whose lives are all about the woods and those whose lives are not. This is a novel faithful to the intimate and sincere yearnings of the heart; its brutal and unexpected ending is worth every second.