Damnation Spring: When fact meets fiction

“It’s a vivid portrayal of the land and its people, a snapshot of a not-so-distant time…And it’s a glorious book — an assured novel that’s gorgeously told.” –New York Times

Damnation Spring is a novel based on the true history of herbicide use by the timber industry in America and elsewhere.  The story begins in the late-1970s shortly after environmental legislation started to regulate the timber industry.  At that time the timber industry had been using Agent Orange for many years to destroy the forest understory and build roads in preparation for clear-cuts as well as after clear-cuts to eliminate competition for tree seedlings.

After a century of clearcutting, this forest, near the source of the Lewis and Clark River in Clatsop County, Oregon, is a patchwork. In each patch, most of the trees are the same age. Photo by Walter Siegmund

The story takes place in a small community of loggers in Northern California.  Their employer is fighting with the federal government for permission to clear cut one of the last old growth forests in Northern California.  It’s a desperately poor community, partly because logging is a seasonal business that provides erratic employment at its best.  The dangerous work orphans many children and disables those who survive their injuries.  It is physically challenging work best performed by young men, not the community of aging loggers without any retirement benefits that would enable them to retire.  It’s a dead-end job in an all-but-dead community.

The visible threats to this community are real, but the long-term threat is less visible.  Agent Orange has contaminated the drinking water of the community.  It’s a deadly herbicide that persists in the environment and in our bodies.  It causes miscarriages and birth defects that are inherited by subsequent generations.  It causes cancer and many other sub-lethal health issues such as frequent nose-bleeds.  America’s use of Agent Orange in Vietnam has sickened, killed and disabled several generations of Vietnamese and American Veterans of the Vietnam War. 

US Army helicopter spraying Agent Orange over Vietnam. Public Domain

But Damnation Spring is a novel, so where is the drama?  The drama is created by the division between the loggers who desperately cling to their dead-end employment and their wives who have experienced repeated miscarriages, still births, and disabled children.  Many wives have experienced more loss than they can tolerate and are ready to object to the poisoning of their water by the herbicides used to facilitate logging.  Their objection is threatening to prevent the timber company from getting the approval needed to continue their clear cuts. 

The result is violent intimidation of the families who are prepared to object to the logging methods that are poisoning them.  The homes of these families are burned and they are threatened if they don’t fall into line to support the continued logging of the remaining forest.  Damnation Spring weaves this toxic mix of conflict into an engaging story with many sympathetic characters.  It is a rewarding book to read. 

Although Agent Orange is no longer used by the timber industry, the basic strategy of the timber industry remains.  Glyphosate is most commonly used by the industry to aerial spay herbicide after forests are clear cut.  The theory is that this reduces competition for the replanted forest.  Since glyphosate and other herbicides are known to damage the soil, it’s doubtful that the new forest benefits from this dousing of the ground. 

This is a familiar scenario that is not unique to the timber industry.  Coal miners are a case in point.  It’s a dangerous occupation with no future.  Yet, coal miners are as wedded to the jobs that damage their lungs as the loggers in the Pacific Northwest are to theirs.  It seems that these poor communities are unable to imagine a better future for themselves.  They resist efforts to regulate their industries.  The regulations are intended to make their jobs safer and improve their environment by reducing pollution and the global warming it causes.  Have we failed to offer them the alternatives that could improve their lives? 

4 thoughts on “Damnation Spring: When fact meets fiction”

  1. This novel sounds like it could have been based on Bitter Fog, the true story of an activist’s home burned down, her four children killed in the fire. We face the worst of humanity in pesticide companies which have taken over the logging industry.

    To the question of loggers clinging to their jobs at all costs, including the life and health of their families, when we were in the middle of our huge campaigns with Earth First! to stop the logging of old-growth redwoods, some of the last on earth, loggers would come out and yell at us about environmentalists causing them to lose their jobs. They were just scared, understandably, because many of them came from generations of loggers who had sustained jobs by sustainable harvesting, selective logging. It was the advent of junk bonders taking over that was resulting in their clearcutting themselves right out of jobs. But, as you note, with these dead-end jobs and little money, how were they going to start off somewhere else?

    This is s huge societal barrier for so many; people in dead-end jobs don’t even have the money to travel to other areas to look for housing or work, or don’t have money for what is required to rent a place, or do not have good (or any) credit, a more recent demand last few decades for anyone renting in many areas.

    In talking with some of these loggers, their pain was evident; they felt trapped. In the toxic Sonoma and Napa valleys many marriages break up because often one will not leave, even if there could be a way, and often the other, especially if there are kids to protect, will leave. I lived that and was far from alone in taking that. course. The especially harsh aspect of having to take such action is that, often those who leave live in deeper poverty their whole lives. We need societal change, a revolution if you will, which allows people to live where they feel safe and not be consigned to poverty for it.

    1. The author of Damnation Spring acknowledges A Bitter Fog as one of her sources of information.

      There are many unpleasant interactions between environmentalists and loggers in Damnation Spring. Some of these encounters are violent. The author is even-handed in the portrayal of both sides. The environmentalists are portrayed as unsympathetic outsiders who don’t understand what the logging community stands to lose. I don’t get involved in such conflicts where I don’t live because I believe there is some merit to that perception of unwelcome outsiders.

      I agree with much of what you say, but I don’t see revolution as a solution. Historically, revolution seems to install a different bunch of autocrats. Regime change rarely seems to benefit society at large and often results in greater conflict and violence. I believe in incremental change that is the result of democratic processes. That requires compromise and rarely results in radical change. When industries such as coal and logging die, government should take some responsibility for helping workers make the necessary transition, in my opinion.

      I am usually disappointed by what little can be accomplished when change is needed. COP26 is a stunning example of what little can be achieved when we are committed to consensus. So be it!

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. FINDING the MOTHER TREE by Suzanne Simard is an engaging read relating her decades of scientific experiments to show that in a healthy forest trees cooperate both by helping their own seedlings and saplings and reaching out through mycorrhizal networks to strangers including other species. For the common good of Life, health of the whole forest community must be maintained. Totally fascinating how plant life “kmows”, and how it attempts to recuperate from natural and man caused trauma. Extent to which recuperation in soil from pesticides is possible has not yet been explored as a serious issue.
    Reading FINDING the MOTHER TREE you will meet what we know of the wood-wide-web . Clearly for us to survive our limited human awareness of how Life works humans must collaborate with intelligence (defined as ability to adapt and survive) of the plant, fungal, and other categories into which we classify creation.

    1. I also admire Suzanne Simard’s research and her memoir, Finding the Mother Tree. I published a favorable review of her memoir recently: https://milliontrees.me/2021/08/01/collaboration-triumphs-over-competition-in-the-forest/

      I was disappointed by Simard’s inadequate treatment of herbicides. She objects to their use by the timber industry, but she doesn’t explain how they damage the soil and therefore the health of the forest. Science has clearly established that some herbicides kill mycorrhizae, some kill beneficial microbes, and some bind minerals in the soil making it impenetrable to rainfall. It was a missed opportunity that Simard didn’t include those important issues in Finding the Mother Tree.

      I agree that Simard’s important book makes a great companion piece to Damnation Spring that does justice to the issue of the toxicity of herbicides used by the timber industry.

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