Ash Davidson Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Ash Davidson
Photo: Carol B. Hagen.

Ash Davidson

An interview with Ash Davidson

Ash Davidson discusses her debut novel, Damnation Spring, and how she researched and wrote a novel encapsulating so many difficult and contentious issues.

What is Damnation Spring about?

Damnation Spring is the story of a logger, Rich Gundersen, his wife, Colleen, a homemaker and a midwife, and their 5-year-old son, Chub. Rich is obsessed with a redwood tree taller than the Statue of Liberty, and risks everything to buy the grove in which it stands. Meanwhile, Colleen has an encounter with an old flame, now a biologist, who plants the idea in her mind that the anomalies she's witnessed midwifing, and perhaps even her own miscarriages, might be related to herbicides the timber company uses. This is upsetting, because she's been desperately trying to have a second child, and it's a suspicion that gradually corrodes not just their family, but the entire community and its way of life. It's a book about the natural world and man's effect on it; it's also a book about family and about love — for your spouse, for your children, for your siblings, even when you're on opposite sides.

What inspired you to write it and how long have you been working on it?

My family lived in Klamath, California, where the book is set, when I was child, although they weren't loggers. My mom taught school, my dad did carpentry work, but our drinking water did come from a creek, similar to Rich and Colleen's setup in the book. My parents were so concerned about herbicide contamination that they started drinking only bottled water and still today, 35 years later, not one of us drinks from the tap. Damnation Spring really began with a question about clean water — I wanted to know what it was my parents had been so afraid of all those years earlier — but that grew into a question about what happens to a geography, a community, and a family when the way of life that has sustained them for generations begins to destroy them. It's a question I spent just over 10 years trying to answer.

Tell us about your family's time in Klamath, California — the inspiration for the novel's setting. While I know you were quite young when you left, it's a place that has taken hold in your imagination. Why? And it's a place that has impacted your family, too. Could you talk a little about this?

My parents had a lot of stories about Klamath and those stories became a kind of mythology of my childhood. Klamath was the most beautiful place they'd ever lived, and that beauty in some ways brought about its own ruin. They had funny stories, and sad stories too. Stories of fatal car wrecks on the coastal highway below our house, and a little boy who impaled himself on a knife in the woods and was only found a few days later. It's almost as if they were genetic, inherited memories; they were that vivid. I kept this little folder of them in my mind. Anthony Doerr has a line in Memory Wall: "You bury your childhood here and there. It waits for you, all your life, to come back and dig it up." This was one part of my childhood that was always there waiting for me.

Tell us about the novel you set out to write and what the novel became.

I set out to write a book about the herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, the two ingredients in Agent Orange, not about logging. The first research trip I took to Klamath, I had a hard time getting people to speak with me. Out of desperation, I went to a community dinner. My mom came with me. It was mostly seniors, and when we walked in, people stared. We paid for our tickets and went through the line and then stood there with our plates — it was a real junior high moment — wondering where we were going to sit. And suddenly someone recognized my mom, because they'd worked together at Margaret Keating Elementary School 28 years earlier. She took us over to her table and introduced me to a man who'd logged old growth. 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 I interviewed him, he brought an album of photos — his crew cutting giant trees decades earlier. He'd known this was history worth documenting. At the very end, I finally got 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 forest or the consequences of their industry — of course human beings are a lot more complicated.

Tell us about your research for the novel? How did you learn about logging? How did you familiarize yourself with all of the terminology? How did you learn about herbicide use and its impact on human health?

I studied. I made flashcards. I read memoirs and newspaper articles. I interviewed retired loggers and millworkers in Klamath. Damnation Spring is fiction, but public concern about herbicides in the late 1970s was real. There were major stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post. I read Carol Van Strum's seminal non-fiction account, A Bitter Fog. Many of the details of herbicide poisoning, particularly the birth defects, are inspired by her book. In it, she tells the story of a schoolteacher named Bonnie Hill, who sent a letter to the EPA in 1978 signed by a group of women in heavily sprayed areas around Alsea, Oregon, documenting their miscarriages. Eventually, that letter led to the Alsea studies I and II, whose findings helped justify the 1979 emergency suspension of 2,4,5-T for forestry uses. In Damnation Spring, Enid and Eugene's youngest daughter, Alsea, is named in honor of this community.

One of your characters, Daniel, a former love interest of Colleen's, is a member of the Yurok tribe. Would you talk about the role the Yurok played and continue to play in the fight for clean water—and why you decided to include a Yurok character?

Daniel deserves his own novel. The so-called "Fish Wars" on the Klamath River and the Yurok people's hard-won Supreme Court victories to reaffirm the Yurok Reservation as "Indian Country" and to preserve their rights to their core natural resource, salmon, are stories of oppression, heroism, and resilience that deserve their own novels. There are Yurok writers with strong personal connections to the river and fishing who are writing about this. I realized early on that those stories were too big and important to fit inside the novel I felt I needed to write, and they also weren't mine to tell. At the same time, in real life, the anti-herbicide movement in the area was led largely by Yurok and Karuk people and I wanted to honor that legacy. Today, the Yurok Tribe is working to get more water in the Klamath to avoid another fish kill like in 2002, when tens of thousands of salmon died on the river. They're working to bring down dams and negotiating with agricultural interests upriver — because the Tribe's culture and their survival as a people depends on that river and its salmon. Amy Cordalis is the remarkable general counsel at Yurok leading that effort. On my website I have a page called "true stories" where you can watch a short video of her taking you up the river, explaining that work.

Damnation Spring is set in a small Pacific Northwest town. Why was it important to set the novel in a small community instead of a larger city?

Small towns like Klamath can be so tight-nit — people rely on each other, they look out for each other. But small towns have long memories and can be hard places to make a living. I think they can also be hard places to go against the grain, as Colleen finds out. The flip side of the security, the hermetic closeness Rich and Colleen feel living there, is isolation. They're right up against the edge — literally of the continent, but also economically, and moving is almost unthinkable. There are dozens of towns like Klamath across the Pacific Northwest, where the timber industry was the economic engine, and, as it declined, people have had to figure out another way to make it, or leave. And when your house and your livelihood and your whole way of life is in a place, the idea of uprooting yourself means losing everything.

The tension that runs through the novel has many parallels to contentious issues dividing U.S. communities and even families today (politics, fracking, other energy issues, etc.). Please share your observations on parallels you're seeing today.

I've felt the tension in my own family over how much industry should be regulated and how to balance economic and environmental priorities. I think we have a tendency as a society, and especially within the environmental movement, to blame workers as if they're somehow complicit in the destruction wrought by their industry and thus responsible for any suffering it brings them — as if anyone signs up for contaminated drinking water or cancer, just to be able to support their family. I just don't think that's looking at the full picture. Where you're born, who you're born to, and what your family does determines a lot about the choices you see in front of you. And I think we need to acknowledge that we're all part of the market, even if we're not the ones cutting the trees or spraying the herbicides. I live in a house made of wood. I've written a book that's printed on paper — it will be printed on 100% recycled paper, processed without chlorine components, but only because Scribner was willing to walk the walk and pay more for a commodity so that it can be sourced responsibly. I think it's important to remember that, at the end of the day, working people are producing the lumber and the toilet paper we all use; they're feeding their families and they're often among the first to pay the piper when it comes to their health and safety.

One of the book's main characters, Colleen, has suffered multiple miscarriages. Other women in the community have experienced stillbirth and have children with birth defects. You write so honestly, yet beautifully and empathetically, about these painful experiences. Tell us how you approached this sensitive and difficult topic, both in your research and your writing?

I think the experience of losing a pregnancy — of losing a child — can be deeply lonely. I read a number of personal testimonies by women and their partners — the essay collection About What Was Lost: Twenty Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope and Our Stories of Miscarriage: Healing With Words. I listened to friends talk about their miscarriages over the 10 years I spent writing Damnation Spring. It might be talked about a bit more openly now than in the 70s, but it's no less painful. A woman I know made the observation that when you have a miscarriage, people tell you, "oh, it's so common, one in five." As if that's supposed to make it easier. When someone's mother dies, no one says, "oh, it's so common." I spent a lot of time trying to understand Colleen's desire for a child. I don't know what it's like to want a baby but not be able to carry one to term, but I do know what it's like to want something you can't control, to live in that territory of hope that borders delusion. In situations like that, some people despair, and others cling to the hope, no matter how slim, and I think Colleen is one of those people.

Much of Damnation Spring is set in the hyper-masculine world of logging, but it's often women's voices and actions that spur tension. What motivates women in the book to move the dial even when they're not in positions of power?

Damnation Spring is set in a time when even a few years earlier married women couldn't get credit cards or loans in their own names, and in a rural, conservative place where many of the women are caregivers without much formal education. But they don't need an epidemiological study to know something isn't right when it's affecting their kids and affecting their own bodies. In Alsea, Oregon, it was women like Bonnie Hill, women who grew gardens and raised chickens, whose kids were sprayed with herbicides while playing in the creek, who put two and two together. When you find blood in your baby's diaper, you can't just stay home. And women paid the price. In real life, anti-spray advocate Carol Van Strum's house was burned to the ground with her four children inside. The women in Damnation Spring don't have a lot of economic power. They often don't have a lot of power even within their own families, but there comes a point when they just can't be quiet any longer. They're motivated by love, a fierce love for their kids, born and unborn.

Damnation Spring has wide appeal. It's a novel for all readers. Please tell us what you hope all readers take away from the novel.

I hope it'll inspire people to visit the Redwoods and see these forests for themselves, or at the very least Google them. I hope it'll make people think about their own drinking water, where it comes from, and what's in it. I hope that wherever you stand on issues of environmental regulation and extractive industry, you might consider why some people think about it differently and reflect on our shared humanity. Whatever "side" someone is on, our fundamental human needs and desires — to make a living, to take care of the people we love and keep them safe — are shared

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Damnation Spring jacket
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  • Claire Boyles

    Claire Boyles

    Claire Boyles is a writer, teacher, and former sustainable farmer. She received her MFA in creative writing from Colorado State University in May 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Boulevard and the Kenyon Review. She lives in... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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  • Barbara Kingsolver

    Barbara Kingsolver

    Barbara Kingsolver's books of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction are widely translated and have won numerous literary awards. She is the founder of the PEN/Bellwether Prize, and in 2000 was awarded the National ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Damnation Spring

    Try:
    Flight Behavior
    by Barbara Kingsolver

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