WHAT HAPPENS WHEN you find out the place you have called home for many years has a threat that puts your health and the health of your loved ones at risk? The answers that emerge and the rivalry that approaches the separation of a community are both heartbreaking and soothing, emotions that Ash Davidson well weaves throughout his debut novel, Damnation Spring.
The book centers on a logging community, where a 3,000-pound haul block can land on a manâs chest or a choker chain can break and send logs the size of school buses down a slope. . But at the heart of this story are the families who, despite understanding the risks, have a passion and pride in their livelihood. At 53 years old, logger Rich Gundersen will almost pour his savings to buy his long-held obsession, â24-7,â a plot of redwood at the top of a ridge. It also happens to be a dumpster for herbicides used by his boss, Sanderson Timber Co. His wife Colleen wants a second child. He is also a witness to the birth defects that occur in their town. When he began to believe that the logging company might be responsible for his losses, as well as the devastating births of babies with missing skulls and brains, he didnât buy.
The family story plays out in the redwood forest along the Northern California coast with its creeks, rocks, groves, creeks, and the vibration of its jigsaws, chains, and motor:
The forest is a maze. Between the fog and the sound of falling water, itâs easy to lose your direction, rarely finding a place where you can see farther than the next ridge. The men who grew up in that forest still got lost hunting them. Walk in one direction for a few minutes, and circle the forest. Soon you stand dizzy, like a child spinning in circles, blinking with a sudden disorientation of removing the blindfold.
Davidsonâs 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 in their truths. And if we ever get lost, we are only a page away when hearing a voice, catching a movement, a sudden flash of light urging us to stay, motivates us to keep going.
Root for characters in Damnation Spring -their unforgiving, protective, deep life and kindred hearts-and the understanding of their complex desires is facilitated by the writerâs narrative style. The story in the 1970s runs through many perspectives of Rich, Colleen, and their son Chub. At each section break, we are given an intimate lens on each characterâs perspectives and perspectives, making it impossible to choose a side. Leaning into each point of view, the reader can access what is unspoken, hidden, unfiltered, a particular perspective on the heavy but often silent emotions of sadness, guilt, and fear that underlie the text. Once we are tempted to point fingers and give moral judgment to a character, the unadorned reality confronts us: they are flawed and rebellious and can retaliate when they are swallowed up by anger.
We see the coherence: that the forest can be tightly tied to oneâs livelihood, that a family can persevere and endure its miserable conditions, that a community can stand together in its suffering. When Davidson believes us with their voices, we also get caught up in the complexities. We suddenly realized how hard it was to do whatever decision and how impossible it is for you to continue knowing the harsh conditions in which these characters live. We were once strangers and at home. One character thinks:
[Y]shut down the grove, we’re not the only ones hurting. This town lives on wood. Maybe you line us up on the wall. [â¦] You wonât find a man who loves woods more than a lumberjack. You can scratch a logger, the more you believe you will find an âenviro-mentalistâ underneath. But the difference between us and these people is that we live here. We are hunting. We will fish. Camp us out. They will return to where they came from, but we will wake up here tomorrow. This is home. The log puts food on our tables, clothes behind our children.
Colleen is great at talking about childbirth. We see firsthand the physical and emotional strength she brought to midwifery and also, inevitably, the loneliness, exhaustion, and loneliness she feels at her own inability. Because Rich was determined not to get his wife pregnant again, to the detriment of another loss to them, he withdrew from intimacy ââ the very thing Colleen was longing for as she turned elsewhere to meet his needs. The parallels run deep.
Damnation Spring successfully translating the logging industry into a heartfelt experience. Its conditions go beyond the danger known by such labor by taking lives embedded in its existence and operation. It is a novel that reflects on the environment while emphasizing the shared humanity between those whose life is about the woods and those whose life is not. It is a novel faithful to the intimate and sincere longing of the heart; its brutal and unexpected ending is worth every second.
Tryphena Yeboah is the author of the chapbook A Mouthful of Home.