“Damnation Spring” joins Richard Powers’s “The Overstory” and Annie Proulx’s “Barkskins” in a growing collection of epic novels about our interactions with trees. It takes place in the late 1970s when the United States is moving aggressively, if belatedly, to address the industrial horrors that have ravaged the country. Empowered by the Clean Water Act and new regulations on chemicals, the Environmental Protection Agency is fundamentally changing how natural resources are used. And the National Park Service is expanding, placing tens of thousands of acres beyond the teeth of the timber industry.
As “Damnation Spring” opens, loggers who work near the Del Norte Coast are facing multiple threats to their livelihood. For generations, they’ve harvested trees as old as the Roman Empire — giants that soar 300 feet in the air, with trunks 30 feet around. Davidson describes the incredible athleticism of their work with such verve that you put this book down expecting to brush sawdust off your hands. Millions of board feet have been cut and dragged off these hills over the years, but now the forest primeval is finally almost played out.
Rich Gundersen, the hero of “Damnation Spring,” stands out even among the toughest loggers. Six-foot-8 in his boots, Rich has worked for the Sanderson Timber Co. for 38 years, longer than his father, who was clubbed to death by a falling branch. Now in his 50s, Rich has the family he never dared to dream he’d have: a young wife named Colleen and a little boy nicknamed Chub. But he knows the work that just barely pays their bills is changing. “Once the old-growth was gone, it’d be single-jacking: dropping, limbing, and bucking your own, a hundred trees a day,” Davidson writes. “Guys their age wouldn’t be able to keep pace. Sanderson wasn’t what it used to be, and neither was the timber.”
Caution has kept Rich alive doing work that sometimes sees his fellow loggers decapitated by snapping wires or crushed by falling branches called, with grim humor, “widowmakers.” But faced with the prospect of unemployment and the eventual loss of his home to the National Park Service, Rich makes an extravagant gamble: Spending most of his savings and borrowing a fortune more, he buys a parcel of land that generations of Gundersens dreamed of owning. The ridge holds 720 acres of prime redwood, at least a million dollars of lumber — if Rich can get it harvested in time.
At any moment, access to his heavily mortgaged trees could be interrupted by bad weather, a landslide, federal regulations or an inconvenient archaeological discovery. But those loan payments are just one of the forces pressing down on Rich’s family.
Back at home, Rich’s wife is dealing quietly with her own pressures. A series of miscarriages has left Colleen feeling fragile with mourning. She’s determined to keep trying for another baby, but Rich refuses to put them both through that ordeal again — or even talk about it. This may be the most affecting aspect of Davidson’s novel, her tremendous empathy for the way a lost pregnancy, with all its mystery and guilt and sorrow, can fracture a good marriage. Rich and Colleen continue on happily enough to fake it, but there’s a catch in the daily step of their lives, a lingering limp of grief.
“Damnation Spring” builds gradually, letting Rich and Colleen’s experiences draw us into the lives of their colleagues, friends and family members. A close community of just 600 people bound together by blood and work, they depend upon the land and one another for their survival. Few escape to college — or escape at all. The most common medical treatment available is endurance. The loggers’ bodies are a map of scars. Babies are born at home, and they sometimes die there, too.
Those increasingly common infant deaths, along with a string of birth defects become the catalyst for the novel’s horrifying conflict. Colleen begins to suspect that the medical problems she’s experienced and witnessed might be caused by the defoliant that the Sanderson Timber Company has been spraying on the woods for years. But what kind of proof can she muster — and what good would it be against a business that controls almost everyone’s job along with the local government?
Davidson tells this story in short chapters that alternate among members of the Gundersen family. Rich and Colleen struggle to pilot their marriage between conflicting environmental and economic exigencies that broach no compromise. And we also get the perspective of their 8-year-old son, Chub, who experiences his parents’ rising anxieties only as a faint disturbance amid his irrepressible delight with his mom, his dad and the natural world. It’s a brilliantly balanced act of synchronous narration, never succumbing to the temptation of sentimentality or cuteness but always attendant to the child’s wonder.
But the greatest accomplishment of this absorbing novel is its capacious understanding of the competing values these folks hold. Nobody knows or loves the forest more than they do, but saving it could mean losing their jobs, their homes, their food — and Davidson is deeply sympathetic to their concerns, even their rage. In that way, “Damnation Spring” offers that rare opportunity to become part of a small community and move among its members until their hopes and fears seem as real as our own. By the end, I felt both grateful to have known these people and bereft at the prospect of leaving them behind.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Ash Davidson
Scribner. 464 pp. $28