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.
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.
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?