Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

9781982144401 (5)If you live anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, you’re no stranger to the thorny politics of logging.

There are the tree-cutters on one side and tree-huggers on the other, and never the twain shall meet. Either you’re wielding the ax of the capitalist machine or you’re an environmentalist do-gooder handing out petitions and chanting “This Land Is Your Land” at a harvest site.

Set in rural Klamath, “a town without stoplights, a gas station, or even a pay phone” nestled in the forest along Northern California’s rugged coast, Ash Davidson’s astonishingly polished and immensely affecting debut novel, Damnation Spring, tells a more nuanced story.

Yes, tried-and-true “longhairs” block logging roads in daisy chains and picket with hand-painted signs about the “greedy hands of industry” to save an old-growth grove. But there are also well-meaning, hardworking folks caught in the crosshairs between the very real climatic consequences of their profession and putting food on the table. As Davidson writes, “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.”

Told from the perspective of fourth-generation logger Rich Gunderson, his wife, Colleen, and their young son, Chub, Damnation Spring takes place over the course of a year from 1977 to 1978. Without telling Colleen, Rich has just forked over the family savings on a loan for 24-7 Ridge, a parcel of land littered with massive old-growth trees on which he hopes to make a killing — if only he can get road access through Damnation Grove, the swath of forest owned by his employer, Sanderson Timber. Yet, there are problems afoot. For one, a human skull was found on Sanderson’s land, halting production.

Colleen’s ex-boyfriend, Daniel — a member of the Yurok tribe and a fisheries biologist studying the impact of logging practices on local salmon runs — also suspects that Sanderson’s use of the herbicide 2,4,5-T is poisoning the creeks that provide drinking water for the town. When he enlists Colleen’s help in collecting samples behind Rich’s back, the political turns heart-wrenchingly personal, pitting neighbor against neighbor and family member against family member. After all, Colleen’s eight miscarriages — not to mention the three anencephalic babies she helped deliver as the town’s unofficial midwife — couldn’t have been a coincidence, or were they?

Ash Davidson author photo credit to Carol B Hagan

Photo: Carol B. Hagan

Davidson spent the first years of her childhood in Klamath. The seeds of her family’s connection to the community — and the 10 years she spent researching the book — are evident on every page. Based on interviews she conducted and the threads of real-life controversies in southern Oregon and Klamath (the Alsea studies, the first long-term research project that analyzed the effects of logging and forestry practices on salmon watershed populations in the Pacific Northwest, for example), the book is chock-full of pressing issues that still plague our rural areas today — from mudslides in heavily logged parcels and silt contamination in salmon breeding areas to legal battles over tribal fishing rights and job losses in struggling industry towns — with nary a preacher pulpit or finger wag in sight.

What makes Damnation Spring such a knockout — and so devastating to stomach — is Davidson’s mature grasp of the precarity of life and the complexities of the human condition. It’s the Gundersons’ fierce love for each other and unwavering resilience despite multiple betrayals and near unshakeable losses that transform the book from a treatise on the dangers of an unfettered industrial complex and the impacts of climate change into a prescient and deeply felt novel about (mostly) good people just doing their best to survive.

Damnation Spring
By Ash Davidson
(Scribner; 464 pages; $28)

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (August 2, 2021)