Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, March 15, 2021

Monday, March 15, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Damnation Spring

Scribner Book Company: Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

Scribner Book Company: Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

Scribner Book Company: Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

Scribner Book Company: Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

Damnation Spring

by Ash Davidson

In this astonishing debut novel from Scribner, a 1970s logging town is torn by conflict when environmental failings jeopardize the livelihood of locals and the foundation of a marriage itself.

Rich Gundersen comes from generations of redwood loggers; a high-climber, he scales 300-footers, gambling his 53 years to prep trees for cutting. His inheritance is a bounty: the legendary 24-7--a tree 30 feet wide, 370 feet tall, that every Gundersen has dreamed of felling. The incredible opportunity arises to buy the 24-7 inholding--a ridge of redwoods that includes Rich's dream tree. Its $1 million worth of lumber would ensure his son, Chub, never needs to log. But without a road to truck out the timber, it's worthless. Without telling his wife, Colleen, Rich empties their savings account to buy the land, gambling that he'll have a road once his employer, Sanderson Timber Co., constructs it for its Damnation Grove project.

His plan topples when operations pause on Damnation Grove over concerns that more clearcutting in Klamath will trigger mudslides, destroy salmon spawning grounds and contaminate creeks with defoliants. The company has always stood by the herbicides, but the safety of the Gundersens' drinking water is in question. But if Sanderson can't spray, Rich won't get the road to the 24-7 ridge--the only hope of paying the mortgage after what he spent for the land, and his last shot at felling the 24-7. The tree is a family legacy. But so is Chub. And so, too, would be the children he and Colleen might now have, if her eight other pregnancies had gone to term. Pregnancies she now believes failed because of poisoned water.

Colleen wants to say something, but she has seen how the Yancy family, whose baby was born with anencephaly, is harassed for faulting the herbicides. The cessation of logging has put everyone in town "on the razor edge of broke," fueling discrimination against the already mistreated local Yurok Tribe, who are pushing back against the contamination.

Caught between two factions, Rich's focus intensifies on what he has always strived to do: protect his family. That becomes increasingly difficult when Colleen decides she can't stay quiet any longer, and the town chooses sides in a dangerous battle for a timber kingdom whose prince--Merle Sanderson--aims to claim his lumber at all costs, environmental and human.

Set over the course of one dramatic year, and told from the perspectives of Rich, Colleen and Chub, Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson is a big American novel about familial love, town politics and the irreversible impacts of a declining industry that dooms forests. Via the divided citizens of Klamath, Davidson elucidates the complexities of logging communities--it's not as simple as just stopping when it's an entire town's livelihood. She achieves this by conjuring a powerful sense of place, inhabited by authentic individuals who want only what they deserve: a healthy family. The women especially have suffered loss, whether of children or fathers or husbands, and Davidson depicts the varied ways they mourn--denying reality, sitting on the truth, speaking out--with tact and sensitivity. Likewise, the men, all aware their deaths are written in the trees, are imbued with purpose, intent on providing for their families. Yet Davidson is careful not to portray imbalance between the sexes; though it's the men who log, Davidson empowers her women with the gumption to transform their grief and worry into actions--sometimes small, sometimes radical--that effect change.

Also marking Damnation Spring as a stunning literary achievement is its transportive prose. Davidson's immersive sensory descriptions put readers on the "muddy pulp" of trails reminiscent of "damp-soft Oreos," through geraniums "soft like the velvet between a horse's nostrils," beneath redwoods that tower "like the comb of a rooster" and into "woolly fog" dense enough to "pull long white beards of it from the air."

Davidson's natural settings come alive--a drizzle "like someone walking backward in front of her with a bowl of water, flicking it in her face"--but it's the clarity in her everyday backdrops that resonate most strongly. A water dispenser "gurgling digestively." Onions tossed into a pan with "an angry sizzle." "The phone ringing furiously, threatening to jump off the kitchen wall." Such tangible details also elevate each character's presence: hands "rough enough to strike a match off"; a shriek of laughter "turning to confetti in the air"; a "woman whose raised eyebrow could lower the temperature of a room"; an "Adam's apple that made swallowing look painful."

Davidson accompanies her precise imagery with skillful use of parallelism and symbolism. An unsolved crossword clue ("Desires. Four letters") sits on the tip of Colleen's tongue for months, similar to how the future she wants is tauntingly out of reach. In the pre-dawn hours, Rich views the lit kitchen window as a beacon, suggestive of a lighthouse that is both beckoning him to a safe harbor and warding him from wrecking on its dangerous emotions. That love--the invisible "rope tied around [Rich's] waist on one end and around [Colleen's] on the other"--is at the core of this tumultuous family saga about the harrowing consequences of environmental collapse. Driven by vivid, sympathetic characters who sparkle with intensity, Damnation Spring is a portrait of love and longing, and their herculean influence. --Samantha Zaboski

Scribner, $28, hardcover, 448p., 9781982144401, August 3, 2021

Scribner Book Company: Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

Ash Davidson: Living and Dying on Timber

(photo: Carol B. Hagen)

Ash Davidson lives in Flagstaff, Ariz. She attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and her work has been supported by the Arizona Commission on the Arts and MacDowell. Her fiction has appeared in various journals, including Copper Nickel and Nashville Review. Damnation Spring (Scribner, August 3, 2021) is her debut novel about a logging community whose livelihood may be endangering its citizens.

Before writing Damnation Spring, you'd known little about how herbicides negatively affected timber country. Why was this a story you needed to tell?

Growing up, my parents told this story about a timber company representative coming by our cabin. We relied on a nearby creek for drinking water, and that creek ran downhill through timberlands, similar to Rich and Colleen's setup in the book. The rep had a bottle of herbicide with him and poured some on his wrist to prove it was safe. My parents had previously signed a petition against chemical sprays; he wanted them to take their names off it. My family left Klamath when I was three, but I always wondered about that bottle, and what was in it.

Your fictionalized version of Klamath, a Pacific Northwest location known for logging, is populated by characters so real, it's almost like you met them rather than wrote them. How did these characters come to you?

They just showed up. I made two research trips to Klamath, in 2014 and 2016, to speak with locals and to interview men who'd logged or worked in the mills. There are scenes in the book inspired by those conversations and by my parents' stories. But with the exception of Lark, who is partly an amalgam of my grandfathers plus a bawdy great-uncle--all foul-mouthed, none of them loggers--the rest of the characters are pure inventions.

In a way, the story revolves around one massive tree, the 24-7, and Rich's hope that he might finally accomplish what previous Gundersen men only dreamed of doing: fell it. What is behind his determination to succeed where they failed, even when it means the herbicide spraying will continue?

Rich lost his father young. One of his only memories of him is of walking up to visit the 24-7 tree. I think Rich internalized his father's dream of felling that tree as a way to hold on to that closeness. The tree is a living tie to his father; it's the same tree his father touched, and his grandfather. He could draw you a map of every nub in its bark. The irony is that fulfilling the family dream would mean destroying the tree, and severing the bond it represents.

Colleen is grieving over her and Rich's recent miscarriage but also over the other seven pregnancies she's lost. Is her belief that she gets only "one miracle"--her son, Chub--simply how she convinces herself she doesn't deserve more?

Colleen so desperately wants another baby. At the same time, she's fending off this shame, this frustration with her own body, for wanting something that is, ultimately, beyond her control. I think Colleen vacillates between the guilt of knowing she should be grateful for the child she has, and her desire for another, which feels greedy to her on some level. The taboos around miscarriage and pregnancy loss have made those experiences deeply lonely for her--it's a very private grief. I suspect that's still true for many women and their partners today.

How did you settle on including chapters from Chub's point of view?

Damnation Spring started out as a first-person novel in Rich's voice. But I kept running into walls--things he couldn't know or wouldn't notice. Even after I added Colleen, they were both so quiet. I needed Chub. He's curious. He's lower to the ground. He's five at the beginning of the book. I'd worked as a nanny, so I had some experience with children that age. They're observant, but not judgmental, and still fully alive to the magic of the world, from birds' nests to Bigfoot.

Why, only when a character who relocated outside Klamath returns, is any attention paid to the herbicides?

Everyone else is focused on making ends meet, on paying the next electric bill. And then there's the psychic toll of confronting the idea that your livelihood could be poisoning the people you love most--thinking about it would upend their lives.

But in real life, there were grassroots efforts in Klamath to stop the sprays. And if you look to true stories about herbicide poisoning, like A Bitter Fog, it was farm wives and schoolteachers, people who grew gardens and picked berries, who put two and two together and organized until 2,4,5-T was taken off the market. Still today, you'll find 2,4-D--the other ingredient in Agent Orange--in lawncare products, and people who live in the forests of the Pacific Northwest are fighting to protect their families from poisons sprayed on them from the air.

Daniel, a member of the local Yurok Tribe, is villainized by the loggers for his theory that the water is causing miscarriages. What was your thought process behind choosing a member of an already ostracized group in town to present this ugly truth?

The events in the novel are fictional, but public concern about herbicides in the 1970s was real. 2,4-D was sprayed on the National Mall to control dandelions before the National Park Service banned it. 2,4,5-T was sprayed on rice crops. In Klamath, it was Yurok people who led efforts to stop chemical sprays and I wanted to honor that. Yurok people have lived along the Klamath River since time immemorial; they didn't need an epidemiological study to know something wasn't right. When you know a place intimately, you notice changes in plant and animal life, the way you'd notice if a person you loved wasn't breathing normally. I thought a lot about Daniel--it's not my culture; getting it wrong could do a lot of harm. But removing him would have felt like an act of erasure. Genocidal America tried to wipe Indigenous people from the map, but the Yurok Tribe is still here, working to get more water in the Klamath, to restore salmon. Across this country, Native people are leading efforts to protect water, from the Dakota Access Pipeline to the White Mesa uranium mill.

Rich won't have sex for fear of losing another baby, is unwilling to kill spiders that wander inside, and serves his son milk when questions arise about the water. Why does he struggle to extend these sensitivities to the ecosystem affected by logging?

Rich recognizes the destruction of the forest around him and his role in it. He's mourning it in his own way. That's why he takes Chub to visit Damnation Grove before the harvest, and to witness the salmon return to Damnation Creek for what will be the last time. But he has to compartmentalize. He quit school at 15; logging is the only life he knows. He's in his 50s; he's the sole breadwinner. If he doesn't log, his family doesn't eat.

It's easy to assume that loggers don't care about the environment, but the line, "You won't find a guy that loves the woods more than a logger," suggests that's not the case. Do you think both passions are mutually exclusive?

Going in, I assumed loggers didn't care about the consequences of their industry. Sitting down with men who'd harvested ancient redwood groves helped me see that, of course, the truth is more complicated. At the end of the day, everyone wants clean water.

I work in conservation--Rich would call me a "tree hugger." I can't speak for logging communities, but I did my best to listen. Bits of dialogue in Damnation Spring are taken from public hearings on mining and forestry projects I attended in Utah and Arizona. The concerns people bring to those meetings--providing for your family, making a life in a rural place--are real. And there are roadmaps for the industry to support environmental efforts, like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, where loggers are thinning overgrown forests to prevent megafires. --Samantha Zaboski

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