Ash Davidson’s debut album, “Damnation Spring,” draws on the deep roots of a forest community.
Feel old? Consider the redwood. Reaching heights of over 350 feet, the world’s tallest tree has been on this planet since the days of the dinosaurs. A single specimen can live for over 2000 years. It’s old enough to run through the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and an assortment of Kennedys, Bushes, and Trumps.
For millennia, two million acres of redwoods thrived in the nourishing fog belt of the Pacific coast. The forests were largely undisturbed by Aboriginal people. This changed in the 1800s with the advent of commercial logging. In just a few generations, the region has changed dramatically: 95 percent of the original ancient coastal sequoias have been felled, their precious timber sent to buyers around the world.
It was in this ravaged and isolated area of ââtimber harvesting that Ash Davidson wrote his first novel, “Damnation Spring.” The book is set in a cohesive northern California community over four seasons in the late 1970s. It is a living portrayal of the land and its people, a snapshot of a not-so-distant time. but it also delves into the knotty history of the place. And it’s a glorious book – a confident novel that’s beautifully told.
Rich and Colleen Gundersen are the seeds of the story. Rich is a lifelong lumberjack, fourth generation mountaineer who remained devoted to his craft until his fifties, even though he killed his father, a skilled tree cutter – “part ape” – who been crushed to death by a saw. – outside branch. Rich is an honest man, a bearded stoic whose size and composure goes well with the tall, sturdy trees he has climbed since he was a teenager. Colleen also endured her fair share of suffering: her father drowned in a skiff while poaching mussels, and she miscarried several times, crying with little support from her husband. Colleen is younger than Rich and is still hoping to give birth to another child. the couple have a sweet boy, Graham, nicknamed Chub because of his love of water and the way he collapses in it like a fish. Colleen helps local women as a midwife, though she’s too modest to call herself one (and gets paid in sweaters and homemade jams).
Davidson describes the intricacies of the forestry industry, from grueling work to the hidden practices of shady businessmen.
Rich’s existence is so tied to the life of the sequoias that his idea of ââchilling out is reading wood catalogs on the sofa in front of a fire. So, when he is offered the rare opportunity to buy a piece of land whose 200 ancient sequoias could make him a fortune (and allow him to live up to his name), he does not resist. Harvesting the land would also allow Rich to part ways with the logging company that governs the area, keeping his son out of the family’s dangerous line of work. The lot in question is 24-7 Ridge, 720 acres of virgin forest which takes its name from a “monster” of a tree 24 feet 7 inches in diameter and 370 feet tall. âHe had walked 24-7 Ridge every morning of his adult life,â Davidson writes in his warm narrative voice. “His great-grandfather had dreamed of buying it, and that dream had passed from generation to generation until it landed, heavy, on Rich.”
Rich, of course, has to spend some money to buy the land, and he quickly decides to do so, choosing not to tell Colleen that he will use up most of their savings in this latest attempt to kill in what has become a dying industry. A pervasive toothache serves as a fitting metaphor for his troubled conscience. âForget his fingernails,â Davidson writes. “Coleen would bite his fingers on the first knuckle if he told her he even thought about it.” Seven hundred and twenty acres. His father had worked six days a week from 13 years until the day he died and had never owned more than one damn truck.
As you might expect, there are a few roadblocks on the way to Rich.
In no time, we’re introduced to Daniel Bywater, a young scientist who walks around town like a mysterious, law-abiding new sheriff. In a VW bus, rather than on horseback, Daniel arrives armed with the knowledge that residents are threatened by an invisible enemy: toxins in the herbicide the logging company sprayed from helicopters to help clear the dead. drink. This, explains Daniel, explains the itching and nosebleeds that bother young and old, the unusual number of cancer cases that have plagued the community, the animals that pop up here and there with strange growths on their bodies. . Despite their ills, people are wary of science. Instead, they choose to reject Daniel as a “college boy,” an outsider – neglecting the fact that he is a member of the Yurok tribe, who have lived in the area since time immemorial. For his detractors, Daniel is a “nutcase” who allies himself with tree addicts from outside the city, “long hairs” who would put an end to the livelihood of loggers.
Rich is one of those who wants to see Daniel gone; the young man’s actions could also threaten the lumberjack’s plans to harvest his beloved crest. To complicate matters, Daniel has a heartbreaking background. He came to the community to heal people, but his presence reopens old wounds.
That’s a lot of material to put together, but Davidson skillfully puts it together into a narrative that flows seamlessly between a tense scene and a quiet moment; its short chapters work across a wide range of characters, from kind-hearted elders to less than compassionate henchmen.
Davidson was born in Arcata, the small Californian town near the novel’s setting, and she brings the region to life with a deep understanding of its idiosyncrasies. She’s as observant as a hawk, capturing the details that distinguish this hazy and muddy land. Among them: the linoleum floor of a dispensary bears scuffs from lumberjacks’ caulk boots, sawdust rains from a folded sleeve of a climber after a day’s work, men return to trees in spring with “the paunchy air of a coming out of hibernation.” In a touching yet ominously funny passage, Colleen volunteers at a community center on Thanksgiving: saw fingers, little finger stumps. A wag observes, ‘The free larva. … Bring out all wood termites.
Davidson is also good at describing the intricacies of the forestry industry, from the grueling work itself to the hidden practices of shady businessmen. And it captures the beauty and majesty of the sequoias. The planks of âbig pumpkins,â as lumberjacks call them, are as âred as raw meatâ on a conveyor belt; after the rain, the âherb scentâ of the trees wafts through the vents of a car.
Some will undoubtedly read “Damnation Spring” as a commentary on the divisions that separate Americans today – that many have blind faith in what authority figures and corporations say is true, even if it is. harms people’s interests; that many have an anti-intellectual distrust of mainstream media and established institutions, even in the face of science and reason. There are certainly parallels. But the book touches on something more timeless and universal: it is about human nature. It’s about our relationships with our loved ones and our communities, it’s about morality and greed, it’s about our understanding and respect for the natural world.
Redwoods have been plundered by humans, damaged by fires, and blown down by flooding, but they’re also incredibly resilient. And as the characters in Davidson’s graceful rendering remind us, humans are just as resilient. After a great loss, they too can continue to grow.
John McMurtrie is an editor and writer in the Bay Area. He is the former book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.
By Ash Davidson
447 pages. Scribner. $ 28.