It was Nickolas Butler’s ringing endorsement that sold Ash Davidson’s Damnation Spring to me. The cover suggested it might have the same gorgeous descriptions of the American landscape I’d loved in his Cowboy Lovesongs and Godspeed. Spanning a single year from 1977-78, Davidson’s tale of environmental despoilation is set in a small Californian community where there’s little in the way of employment besides logging or the fish cannery.
Old growth redwoods as wide as houses towered overhead, shafts of morning light filtering down through needles, casting a green tint over everything
Rich Gundersen is a champion topclimber, just as his father and his grandfather were before him. He’s married to Colleen with whom he has a son, Chub, due to start kindergarten. Both Rich and Coll would love another child but Coll has suffered many miscarriages. They’re a decent family, caring and careful with each other. Coll continues to help her sister, who seems to turn out a child every year, and her feckless husband. Like his father, Rich has a cherished ambition to fell the 24/7, the vast redwood overlooking the forest he helps log for the Sanderson company, and is willing to risk financial ruin to attain it. To collect his prize, Rich is relying on Sanderson’s plans to build a road for their final harvest but before they do that, the undergrowth must be cleared. Helicopters spray overhead as they’ve done many times before. Marine biologist Daniel, researching the dire state of the Klamath River’s fish stocks, begins to make noises, inviting journalists to write about the babies born with appalling birth defects. Meanwhile, the Sandersons launch a series of dirty tricks to rid themselves of protestors determined to save the redwoods, turning their ire on Daniel. By the end of the year the community is brought face-to-face with the full extent of the company’s scheming and its tragic consequences.
All this environmental bullshit, it’s just paperwork
Davidson tells her story through the Gundersens, switching perspectives between Rich, Coll and Chub, an effective way of exploring the environmental devastation wrought on landscape and people by a company which ruthlessly exploits both. Its slash and burn approach has taken a dreadful toll: the Yoruk tribe can no longer rely on the river for the salmon they’ve fished for centuries; landslides devastate homes and families; the chemicals used in spraying wreak havoc on flora, fauna and humanity. It’s an immersive, all too believable story, heartrending at times, made even more so by the knowledge that Davidson was born in the area. It reminded me a little of Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer although I have the same problem with Davidson’s novel as I did with Kingsolver’s: too long. Novels over 400 pages have to work very hard to earn top marks from me although this one did pretty well. It reminded me of a Californian holiday, many moons ago, which took us from San Francisco to Yosemite, hearing the lunch whistle as we drove through a small logging town. Sobering to think of that after reading Davidson’s book.
Tinder Press: London 9781472286628 464 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)