When humanity pits itself against nature, the outcome may seem predetermined. But in the redwood forest of coastal California in the 1970s, the odds appear to be momentarily even. At least, that’s the experience of the Gundersen family at the center of Ash Davidson’s powerful debut novel, “Damnation Spring,” which follows Colleen and Rich Gundersen and their 8-year-old son, nicknamed Chub, through four seasons beginning in the summer of 1977.
The spring of the title is the source of the Gundersens’ drinking water, one of a series of streams that run through the magnificent old-growth forest described as so clear and sweet they’re like “drinking rain.” Home to spawning salmon, these waterways serve as a lifeline to the community of loggers and the Indigenous Yurok people, as well as landmarks in the dense forest. “Damnation Creek leaks down from the spring, water so clean you could almost sing,” Rich teaches Chub, as a way of handing down his wood lore and making sure his young son can find his way home.
Rich, a fourth-generation logger, has a deep appreciation of the nature surrounding them, including the trees he helps fell for a living: “Solid hardwood, no knots, just clear-all-heart — highest-grade redwood God ever made,” he tells a new hire, even as he cautions him to trim the cuffs of his new jeans, which could be caught up in a potentially deadly accident. Rich has firsthand knowledge of such perils. At 53, he has “outlived every Gundersen on record,” including his father, who was killed by a falling branch. Like his father, Rich is a “tree topper,” climbing the centuries-old giants with tension rigging to cut off branches in service to the local Sanderson Lumber, as is most of his community. “This family supported by timber dollars,” read signs dotting the steep hills and valleys.
Colleen is acutely aware of the danger of her husband’s job: “be careful,” her daily send-off. Her own father didn’t die in the forest, however. Poaching mussels during a slow season, he drowned, a tragedy that didn’t even bring his family the usual Sanderson condolence benefits.
Despite the beauty of their surroundings, depicted with gorgeous specificity by Davidson, a native of the area, it’s a hard life and getting harder. The “big pumpkins,” as the largest redwoods are called, are disappearing, and “tree huggers” are threatening to gum up the lumber company’s access to what remains. The environmentalists are scorned. “What do they wipe their butts with? That’s what I’d like to know,” scoffs one of the loggers. In addition, fishing concessions won by the Yurok have increased friction between the white and Indigenous communities, as families like the Gundersens scrabble for a diminishing slice of the pie.
Compounding their woes is Colleen’s unalloyed grief at her recent miscarriage. Her work as the community’s unofficial midwife has taught her how common such losses are, especially recently, and, at only 34 years old, she wants to try again. But when she delivers a child with a catastrophic birth defect, the tragedy reawakens her anguish. Smaller misfortunes are accumulating as well. In the short chapters, which alternate narratives, we learn that Chub and his mother are having nosebleeds. A neighbor’s irises have died, as have another’s bees.
The culprit, as is apparent to the reader early on, is the exfoliant sprayed by Sanderson to kill the brush and brambles that hinder the lumbering. Although everyone is aware of the spray, with its “faint whiff of chlorine,” the linkage is first articulated when Daniel Bywater, Colleen’s old boyfriend, returns to the area as a fisheries biologist.
“I wouldn’t be drinking out of those creeks anymore,” he warns Colleen. Daniel is an enrolled member of the Yurok tribe; his research attracts racial tensions as well as economic ones. The company, of course, has spread a different story. “[T]hat stuff is special engineered — only kills weeds,” the loggers have been told.
Under these pressures, secrets begin to pile up. Rich invests his and Colleen’s savings in a risky venture without her knowledge. Drawn to her ex, Colleen compounds the betrayal by collecting samples of their drinking water for Daniel’s research. The resulting showdown, at a public hearing, lays out the conflict with heart-rending clarity. Damnation spring, and its creek, are aptly named, but the options are few. “You scratch a logger, you better believe you’ll find an ‘enviro-mentalist’ underneath,” says Rich. “But the difference between us and these people is we live here.”
This confrontation sets up a showdown as inevitable as a mudslide, propelling the community down a path as steep and treacherous as any logging road. It’s a path Davidson portrays in exquisite detail, from the beauties of the forest to neighbors turning on each other with predictable, if tragic, results. If at times the author veers into melodrama — those hillside hairpin curves can be sharp — it’s in service of the larger tale. In “Damnation Spring,” giant trees are brought low by human machinations. Communities can be, too.
By Ash Davidson
Scribner, 464 pp., $28
Clea Simon is the author, most recently, of “Hold Me Down.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.