Book Review: Ash Davidson’s Damnation Spring

Living in Southern Oregon, not far north of where Ash Davidson’s Damnation Spring is set, I’ve grown used to passing trucks that are overloaded with timber, and mountainsides bare from clear-cuts. Knowing that this novel is about logging redwoods in the late 1970s, I wasn’t sure how biased I might be, as an reader who is decidedly in the camp that the novel’s characters call “hippies” and “tree-huggers.”

Yet this is a novel I’d recommend for environmentalists above all.

Davidson shows us a world that is starkly divided, and she keeps us as readers rooted in the world of the loggers—those who have cut down trees for generations and know of no other way to live, yet who hope for more for their own kids—and their families, whose lives depend on the less-than-steady pay (there’s no logging in the winter, when it rains) and who hold their breaths until their loved ones walk through the door at the end of a day. 

The narrative unfolds through the eyes of Rich and Colleen Gunderson, with a few chapters from their son, Chub’s, point of view. Rich is fifty-three years old and already losing his hearing in his “saw ear” (the logging company cluelessly gave out earplugs one year at the company picnic, but no one uses them, “when all that kept you from getting clubbed by a falling widowmaker or rolling-pinned by a runaway log was your damn ears”). Rich’s wife, Colleen, is much younger than Rick at thirty-four, and, as much as she adores Chub, his starting kindergarten has “tightened the laces in her chest,” leaving her lonely and adrift, and she longs for another child after eight devastating miscarriages. 

It soon becomes clear that Colleen’s miscarriages—and other illnesses appearing in town: sudden nosebleeds, babies born with severe birth defects—are the result of the unnamed spray that “kept the brush down, made it faster and cheaper to log,” its chemicals identified by Daniel Bywater, a postdoc from Colleen’s past who is a member of the native Yurok tribe and is back to visit family as well as to study the local water and fish. His presence brings up issues old and new for Colleen—their unresolved past, his findings about the water coming from her tap.

The tensions in this novel are many, and together they give Damnation Spring the page-turning urgency of a thriller: Rich’s purchase of more than 700 acres of harvestable timber, which he keeps from Colleen despite it decimating their savings and despite the lack of roads, yet, that would make the land worth anything; Colleen’s connection to Daniel, both personally and in regard to his water study, as she tries to hide their association from her husband and the town; the standoffs between the “those longhairs” and the loggers; and the precarious nature of every life in a landscape in which all struggle for mere survival, from the timber families to the salmon in creeks dammed up by mudslides to the dogs chained in yards to the fate of the “big pumpkins,” the redwoods themselves. 

Rich and Colleen are growing apart as secrets loom between them; Rich is not only obsessed with his secret land, he is aware of only five of Colleen’s eight miscarriages, and he’s begun to withdraw from her in more ways than one, as Colleen observes: “His hearing was going, especially in that right ear, his saw ear, thirty-five years in the woods slowly lowering the volume knob on the world around him.”

Photograph by Carol B. Hagen

Meanwhile, Collen’s sister, Enid, has given birth to her sixth child, and Colleen envies her, even as they all begin to realize something is wrong with the baby. Enid’s husband, Eugene, becomes increasingly violent toward not only the “tree-hugging welfare bums” but toward anyone in town who even considers signing Daniel’s petition calling for an end to the timber company’s spraying. Every logging family is barely surviving as it is, and the locals, once united in their animosity toward all environmentalists, begin to turn on one another as many of them realize the terrible consequences of the chemicals that have made their way into the water supply. 

Despite being focused on Rich and Colleen, the novel tells many characters’ stories—affirming, in the end, the strength of community—and Chub’s point of view lends an interesting perspective; we see such events as funerals and town meetings through his eyes. And despite the feel that the book may be stretching toward an inevitable conclusion, the twists toward the end are unexpected, at the same time feeling fateful and real. 

And Davidson’s prose is absolutely beautiful, every detail immersing us in this landscape fully and seamlessly as she reveals characters’ tensions, longings, disappointments, and their attachment to the land. Damnation Spring is a must-read for environmentalists above all because when it comes to conservation, it’s so important to know what is being destroyed as well as is being saved—the solutions have to benefit everyone, or at least not devastate anyone.

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