Ash Davidson showed up in Klamath in March of 2014 to interview people for her book about the last years of old-growth logging. But even though she had lived in Klamath as a child, she didn't know anyone there anymore, and few of her would-be informants even returned her phone calls.
Fortunately, her mother had come with her on the research trip. Susan Davidson had taught at the local Margaret Keating Elementary School, and when she and her daughter attended a community dinner, a former colleague recognized her and invited mother and daughter to sit. After that, Davidson started getting her interviews. "If it hadn't been for my mother's connection, I might still be in the Requa Inn waiting for people to return my phone calls," she said over Zoom from her home in Flagstaff, Arizona.
- Damnation Spring
After another research trip in 2016 and five years of writing and rewriting, Davidson saw her book Damnation Spring published in 2021 to extraordinarily positive reviews. Stephen King commented, "Probably the best book I'll read this year. It's about work and love and characters who ring true." Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles wrote, "By the end, I felt both grateful to have known these people and bereft at the prospect of leaving them behind."
While environmental controversies drive the book's tense plot, characters, as King observes, are what make it so compelling. Lark is a disabled former logger who enjoys tweaking members of the local timber dynasty and warning tree huggers to watch out for bounty hunters. Daniel is a Yurok biologist who has returned from college to investigate whether herbicides are tainting the water. Enid is a mother of six who holds off a repo man with a gun. Her husband Eugene is as volatile and violent as a teen — "like having a seventh kid," says Enid. But after Eugene learns his baby daughter has a congenital disability, he lays his head in Enid's lap and cries.
The main characters are husband-and-wife Rich and Colleen. Rich is a fourth-generation logger, about 50, who climbs and tops old-growth trees so they can be felled without splintering apart or damaging other trees. It's a dangerous trade — something Colleen thinks about every time Rich leaves for work. "Come home safe to me, String Bean," she writes on the note she places in his lunch box.
Much younger and still recovering from a childhood of isolation and loss, Colleen thrives in the warmth of Rich's abundant love. But it's the 1970s, and Rich is a traditional guy, so his consideration for his wife does not extend to consulting her before going into massive debt to acquire an old-growth grove. His father and grandfather had dreamed of owning and logging that grove, and Rich thinks it would secure his wife and son's future. Rich's high-stakes bet on the grove is revealed in the first few pages — skip the cover blurb if you want to avoid spoilers about what leads Colleen to challenge the local timber company.
Davidson handles the logging controversies with balance and fairness — a result that wasn't guaranteed at the outset of her project when she'd expected to follow the standard narrative of virtuous environmentalists fighting to protect trees as old as Jesus from the chainsaws.
"When I actually sat down with people who'd made their living cutting down old-growth trees, I was surprised to learn things that should have been obvious," Davidson said. "Loggers love the woods. They hunt, fish, pick berries, take their kids camping. They have real respect for the forests and trees." She said she felt ashamed as she came to realize how much she'd assumed about old-school loggers before she'd talked to any of them.
Davidson has been most gratified by the book's reception among loggers and their families — people like those she met and interviewed in Klamath after her mother helped her break the ice. "I've heard from many retired loggers, children and wives of loggers," she said. "They email me from all over to say they recognize people from their communities. 'I knew a Lark. I knew a Rich.'"
Davidson added, "One of my favorite responses — one that made me laugh — came from a gentleman who'd been a faller. He was in his late 80s, and he started his email by writing, 'I don't usually read books by females.' I guess we all have our assumptions about people."
Davidson is working on her next book about a family of wildland firefighters.
Jim Hight (he/him) is a former NCJ staff writer and contributor who now lives in Colorado. Email him at email@example.com.