Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson: Profit trumps all

Cover image for Damnation Spring by Ash DavidsonIt 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 Shotgun 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)

17 thoughts on “Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson: Profit trumps all”

  1. I was sent an unsolicited review copy, which usually is a recipe for a book not getting read, but in this case I think I’ve seen enough positive reviews that I’ll go ahead with it. I wonder why Davidson chose a historical setting — perhaps because that was when people first started to wake up to environmental crisis, and the decade when we could and should have done more, collectively, to avert it. It’s interesting how books about trees tend to get bloated, isn’t it? (Barkskins, The Overstory.) Maybe the trees are so majestic they seem to require a suitably epic tale! If you can get hold of a copy (American only release so far, I think), I imagine you’d prefer the economic, linked short stories of Site Fidelity by Claire Boyles.

    1. I think she comes from the area so perhaps it’s based on a particular incident. It certainly was a missed opportunity, wasn’t it, although easily said with hindsight, I suppose. I hope you enjoy it if you read it and thanks for the Site Fidelity tip.

  2. My favourite bookseller gave me a proof of this one last time I was in and I hadn’t really looked at it too closely to be honest, but it sounds like I could be in for a treat.

  3. I’m always on the side of a heavier edit! This sounds bleak, because it’s so believable. I hope there’ll be more environmental change, but it seems so slow given the desperate situation.

    1. Oh, me, too, on both counts. We have to stop thinking that climate change is in the future and uncerstand that it’s already caught up with us, and that we’re all going to have to change our ways, some more than others.

  4. Definitely a book that should resonate loudly with us all now, after all that’s been happening with environmental crises and climate change. I also love the cover, it really draws the eye.

  5. This is one I’ve recently picked up from the library, so I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it as much as Prodigal Summer (which I loved). Not sure how readily available it would be for you, I think I’ve seen news of an international release recently (could have been the US though), but Canadian writer Michael Christie’s Greenleaf explores similar territory but has a structural side to it (as well as the multiple POVs) which really adds a degree of satisfaction to it. (Also, it was published with 100% sustainably harvested trees, an element which I think should be required for eco-fiction!)

      1. Here’s the link to Freehand’s page then:

        But, don’t read the description if you want to be surprised by the narrative developments. Morisot’s well known for some connections that I wasn’t aware of and I enjoyed discovering them as part of the “story”. (I know, I know, some believe that spoilers are fair-game when it comes to biography, I get it, but I still like to be swept away.)

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