Debut Author Ash Davidson Discusses Her Epic, Immersive Novel Damnation Spring

Told from the perspectives of Rich, Colleen, and Chub, in prose as clear as a spring-fed creek, this intimate, compassionate portrait of a community clinging to a vanishing way of life amid the perils of environmental degradation makes Damnation Spring an essential novel for our time.

Ash Davidson was born in Arcata, California, and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has been supported by the Arizona Commission on the Arts and MacDowell. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Damnation Spring is Ash Davidson's debut novel, and in it, we meet the Gundersen family. For generations, Rich Gundersen’s family has chopped a livelihood out of the redwood forest along California’s rugged coast. Now Rich and his wife, Colleen, are raising their own young son near Damnation Grove, a swath of ancient redwoods on which Rich’s employer, Sanderson Timber Co., plans to make a killing. Rich wants better for his son, Chub, so when the opportunity arises to buy 24-7 Ridge—costing them all the savings they’ve squirreled away for their growing family—he grabs it, unbeknownst to Colleen. Because the reality is their family isn’t growing; Colleen has lost several pregnancies. And she isn’t alone. As a midwife, Colleen has seen it with her own eyes.

For decades, the herbicides the logging company uses were considered harmless. But Colleen is no longer so sure. What if these miscarriages aren’t isolated strokes of bad luck? As mudslides take out clear-cut hillsides and salmon vanish from creeks, her search for answers threatens to unravel not just Rich’s plans for the 24-7, but their marriage too, dividing a town that lives and dies on timber along the way. Told from the perspectives of Rich, Colleen, and Chub, in prose as clear as a spring-fed creek, this intimate, compassionate portrait of a community clinging to a vanishing way of life amid the perils of environmental degradation makes Damnation Spring an essential novel for our time.

1. What inspired you to write this novel?

My family lived in Klamath, California, where the book is set. My parents weren’t loggers—my mom taught school, my dad did carpentry work. But they did rely on a nearby creek for drinking water, similar to Rich and Colleen's setup in the book, and became so concerned about herbicide contamination in that creek that they stopped drinking from our tap. Still today, not one of us does. I was three when we left Klamath, but I grew up hearing stories about our life there. I’d always wondered: what were those herbicides? So Damnation Spring really began with this very personal question, and that grew into what happens to a community, and a family, when a way of life that’s sustained them for generations begins to literally erode under their feet.


2. Did you do any research while writing Damnation Spring? If so, what books, documentaries, articles, etc., did you consult? How did your research shape this novel?

I owe a huge debt to Carol Van Strum’s 1983 book, A Bitter Fog, a true account of the grassroots struggle to protect communities from chemicals sprayed on them from the air. That book, among many others, gave me a roadmap to track down primary sources, including Oregon schoolteacher Bonnie Hill’s 1978 letter to the EPA which eventually led to the Alsea studies and the emergency suspension order banning the use of the herbicide 2,4,5-T—an ingredient in Agent Orange—in forestry.

I also returned to Klamath to do interviews and get the physical details right. The first trip, I had a hard time getting people to speak with me. Out of desperation, my mom and I went to a community dinner. It was mostly seniors; when we walked in, people stared. We paid for our tickets, went through the line, and suddenly a woman recognized my mom, took us over to her table, and introduced me to a logger. He wouldn’t talk to me inside, so we went out to the parking lot and leaned against the hood of his truck and talked for two hours. The next time, he brought a photo album—his crew cutting giant redwoods decades earlier. Finally, I worked up the nerve to ask about the herbicides. He told me he’d been sprayed over while he was working, and how it had affected him. That totally disrupted this tidy narrative in my head that loggers didn’t care about the consequences of their industry; it helped me realize that, of course, human beings are a lot more complicated.


3. The relationship between Colleen and Rich is the heart of this book. There is such love, kindness, and grace in their marriage, and even when there is conflict, you know how much they care about each other. Why did you choose to center your novel on these two individuals?

Rich had been a bachelor most of his life. Living in an isolated, rural place, and working a dangerous, physical job where the only female contact he had was with the bookkeeper when he picked up his paychecks, he’d come to terms with the fact that he’d had his chance and struck out and would spend the rest of his life alone. So when he meets Colleen—he’s in his forties, she’s almost twenty years his junior—to him, it’s miraculous. Whatever their difficulties—even in the face of Colleen’s betrayal—he rarely loses sight of his good luck, to have gotten this second chance. He cherishes his family. I struggle with forgiveness, so it was a privilege to spend time with this couple as they navigate the ups and downs in their marriage, even as their capacity to forgive is tested.


4. In the novel, Colleen is close with her sister Enid, and they both seem to have what the other wants. Colleen struggles to conceive another baby, while her sister has multiple children. Colleen has a kind and loving husband in Rich, while Enid’s is cruel and unfeeling. Why do you think Colleen and Enid, and we as human beings, so desperately want what others have?

I don’t think either sister would trade what she has, given the choice. But I do think longing can act as a kind of radioactive dye, turning the object of desire incandescent. The way a woman who desperately longs for a baby suddenly notices pregnant women everywhere.


5. There are multiple scenes in this novel where Rich takes his young son Chub on walks in the woods. Rich teaches his son how to navigate the forest, and how to always find his way home. Why was it so important to show Rich teaching his young son how to find his way? What do you think this says about Rich as a father? About his relationship with his son?

Rich is in his fifties, but he remembers losing his own father as a young boy. He’s already lived longer than any man in his family, and he’s seen men die in logging accidents, doing what he does every day. So he’s aware of his own mortality and has certain values he wants to pass on to his son, including self-sufficiency and confidence. Rich understands the precarity of human life; none of us knows exactly how long we have on this Earth. He wants to make sure his son will be able to find his way without him, and he’s doing everything he can to forge a bond that will live on in his son’s memory so that, no matter how old Chub gets, he’ll never look at his palm without seeing the map his father drew there.


6. This novel is such a layered complex character study of one family, Rich and Colleen and their young son Chub. When you started writing this story, did you know how it would end? Or did you discover the journey of these characters as you were writing?

I thought I did. I started writing Damnation Spring in July 2010 with a very specific ending in mind. I usually start at the end, and the last scene is a lighthouse for me. Except, when I finally got to that ending, it no longer fit. I rewrote it several times, but it wasn’t until the week before I submitted the final manuscript that I finally stumbled upon the right ending. Suddenly the whole book snapped into focus. It had been headed toward that ending the whole time—you could feel the current quickening on its way to the waterfall—all the foreshadowing was already laid out, it just took me ten years to see it.


7. This novel is told from the perspective of Colleen, Rich, and their young son Chub. Why was it important for you to include the perspective of a child in this novel?

I kept running into walls—things Rich couldn't know or wouldn't notice. So I added Colleen, but they were both so quiet. I needed Chub. He’s curious. He’s lower to the ground. He’s five when the book opens. I'd worked as a nanny, so I had experience with children that age. They’re observant and fully alive to the magic of the world, from bird’s nests to Bigfoot. He peels back the layers in his parents’ relationship in a way that’s open-hearted and non-judgmental; he reveals things the adults around him might obfuscate.


8. The herbicides Sanderson Timber Co uses are dangerous for the environment and the community, but it is also evident that the livelihood of so many families depend on logging. What do you hope that readers learn from the conflict in this novel given the ongoing crisis of Climate Change?

I think we often blame people who work in extractive industries—logging, fracking, coal mining—as if they’re complicit in the environmental damage and therefore responsible for any suffering it brings them. But the reality is we’re all consuming the products of their labor. I hope readers come away from Damnation Spring recognizing that the basic human desires to provide for our families, to protect the people we love and keep them safe, are shared. The climate doesn’t care what “side” you’re on. And the climate crisis is fueled by choices many of us make.


9. Colleen has lost multiple pregnancies, and as a midwife, she knows she’s not alone. Despite this, Colleen is quite resistant to the idea that herbicides could cause these miscarriages. Why do you think it was so hard for Colleen to see what is happening before her own eyes?

Environmental contamination is particularly hard on mothers, I think. A mother’s instinct to protect her children is so strong. For Colleen, the idea that she failed to protect her own unborn babies from the herbicides is almost too much to bear. Logging puts food on her table. It pays for Chub’s school clothes and the electric bill. The psychic toll of realizing that her family is profiting from something that’s potentially harming people is so painful she can’t look at it head-on, until Daniel lays it out in terms it’s impossible to ignore. But her denial is also a form of self-preservation. She knows that, in a small town, biting the hand that feeds, even if it’s also poisoning you, can cost you a lot more than a paycheck.


10. There are two epigraphs for Damnation Spring. One is a quote from John Steinbeck, “they are not like any trees we know,” and the other is from Wallace Stegner, “It is easier to die than to move.” Why did you choose these two quotes to introduce this novel?

The first is from Travels with Charley, when Steinbeck says no one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. I really struggled with how to describe one. I tried it’s wider than a house, taller than the Statue of Liberty, but I think “they are not like any trees we know” is the most honest way to describe them.

“It’s easier to die than to move” is from Angle of Repose. I think sometimes we assume that working in an industry like logging is a choice easily substituted with another choice, but there is real grief in letting go of a good job that has defined you. Damnation Spring is set forty years ago, but we see parallels in industry today. There are plenty of reasons why a coal miner in West Virginia can’t just pick up and move west to work on a solar farm. When your whole life is in a place, the idea of uprooting it is so overwhelming, it’s understandable that dying in the life you know might be preferable to starting over.
 

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