The title of Ash Davidson’s debut novel Damnation Spring immediately calls to mind Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental classic Silent Spring. In one of the most important science books of all time, Carson wrote about the lethal aftereffects of DDT and other synthetic pesticides. Her title was inspired by John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” which describes an environment in which “the sedge is wither’d from the lake / And no birds sing.” In 1963, Carson told a Senate subcommittee on pesticides, “Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves.”
Damnation Spring focuses on the human and environmental costs of such heedless destruction. The novel follows a Pacific Northwest Coast family from July 1977 to July 1978. Rich Gunderson is an old-growth redwood high-climber whose father and grandfather had also worked in the timber industry. Colleen Gunderson, Rich’s wife and the mother of their kindergarten-age son Chub, volunteers as a midwife for the women whose husbands log Damnation Grove. The title Damnation Spring names the source of the Gunderson’s drinking water and also refers to the season when the broadleaf herbicide 2,4,5-T is indiscriminately sprayed by helicopter, plane, truck, and men on foot.
Davidson describes the brutal work of old-growth logging in painstaking detail. People are frequently maimed or killed, but nonetheless, the community dreads the inevitable end of their established way of life as the old-growth trees become increasingly scarce. The dangerous logging equipment and devastating results of clear-cutting create and sustain tension throughout the novel.
Tension is further increased as the story unfolds in shifting third person. Each chapter is named for the character whose point of view prevails, usually Rich or Colleen, and occasionally Chub. Often chapters are preceded by the date, and sometimes the same day is witnessed from two different characters’ perspectives. In this way, the reader learns what one character knows or does but keeps secret from the others. Guilt, silence, grief, and secrecy spawn new secrets that threaten to destroy the bonds of long-standing relationships.
The author is well acquainted with the region, its people, and their traditional way of life. Davidson transports the reader to the 1970s world of Pacific Northwest loggers with their snus and caulks and the painted crosscut saws hanging on living room walls. The novel is replete with the specialized vocabulary of logging—for example, big pumpkins like 24-7, one of the last and largest of the old growth redwoods, or the crummy, the vehicle that transports loggers to and from work sites. The logging lingo, the men’s ribald banter, and private observations of the characters’ health concerns and bodily processes create a kind of intimacy between the reader and the characters of Damnation Spring.
Davidson’s characters defy simplistic categorization. Their thoughts, emotions, and actions reveal the compromises they make, the delusions they cling to, and the contradictions between the façade they present to the world and their inner being. Although they rely on an industry that destroys the natural world for profit, they carry an abiding love for the land in which their families are deeply rooted even as they perpetrate its destruction. They keep some animals as companions and kill other animals for food. They’re committed to family and work, and loyalties run deep. They know life is fleeting. Rich often thinks of a close friend’s counsel: a man should never leave his home without kissing his wife goodbye. Between falling limbs, moving chains, mudslides, and flash floods, you never know if this will be the last time she sees you alive. After generations of dangerous human activity pitted against the latent power of nature, everyone in the community has known harrowing loss and expects to experience more. Yet, because they’re so tightly interconnected with their environment and one other, the characters can’t conceive of any other place or way to live.
Recently I read The Overstory by Richard Powers, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Although it also addresses environmental degradation and deforestation in the Pacific Northwest, the two novels differ in their approach to the subject. The Overstory is told from the perspective of environmental activists. The protagonists of Damnation Spring, on the other hand, are loggers and their kin. Davidson’s characters are part of the problem, yet their suffering readily elicited my sympathy. With the advantage of hindsight, the reader knows what’s happening in Damnation Spring even as the characters struggle to understand their persistent bad luck: increasingly frequent and severe health problems, growing economic insecurity, and cataclysmic environmental disasters. One character, a Yurok postdoctoral fisheries biologist, returns to the area where he grew up in order to gather data on TCDD dioxin levels in the creek water, and he tries to warn the people of Damnation Grove about the dangers of herbicide spraying. Davidson renders this character, a highly educated environmentalist, as flawed as the people who work and live in the logging community.
Historical accuracy and Davidson’s skillful writing fluidly move the plot, evoke the setting, and allude to deeper matters of enduring importance. Onomatopoeia enlivens the prose with the sounds of “juddering” machines, the windshield wipers’ “scriff-scraff,” and branches “screaking” against the sides of a truck. Vivid descriptions of dark redwood forests and turbulent creeks, frequent hard rains and omnipresent fog depict the beauty and majesty of the natural setting and at the same time convey the foreshadowing of pending catastrophe. A junk-strewn front yard and a rotting tooth in Rich’s mouth are described often enough to feel symbolic.
Fifty years later, the plight of the Gundersons’ community has become the plight of our entire planet. Climate change threatens everyone and everything. Convincing people of this reality when their jobs and identities depend on environmentally damaging practices is a formidable task. As climate solutions are implemented, the needs of transitional communities must be considered and addressed with compassion.
Damnation Spring provides valuable insight into the beliefs and values of people disinclined to change their traditional way of life. Indeed, changing people’s minds and habits may be the hardest part of implementing alternatives to the “heedless and destructive acts” wrought by humans. And to be honest, aren’t we all to some extent reluctant to change?
The power of this novel lies in its ability to shift the reader’s regard from “them” to “all of us.” After reading Damnation Spring, one may well ask, as I did, What can I change in my life that will contribute to a better world? Ash Davidson’s Damnation Spring is an important book for our times; a cautionary tale told with grace that inspires empathy, urgency, and reflection.
Linda Scheller is the author of Fierce Light, a FutureCycle Press book of poetry honoring 36 historic women. Her book reviews, poetry, and plays are published or forthcoming in Hawai’i Pacific Review, Poem, Notre Dame Review, and Poetry East, among other journals. Linda is a California Central Valley educator who programs for KCBP community radio and serves on the board of the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center. Her website is lindascheller.com.