Growing up in Michigan, Dean Kuipers endured life with an emotionally distant father who used the certitude of his rigid religious faith and his fiery temper to block any meaningful connections with his family. Bruce Kuipers was also a serial cheater and imploded his marriage in addition to driving his sons away.
After many years of estrangement, Bruce made a dramatic attempt to improve relations with Dean and his two brothers by purchasing a run-down, 100-acre deer hunting camp and inviting them to share it fully with him. Yet, even then he imposed strict rules that compelled his sons to take a stand and say that if they were going to be a part of it, they wanted to make a mark of their own in improving the grounds.
That effort, which resulted in an almost miraculous rejuvenation of land that had long seemed ruined, also paid off with revived family bonds that transformed a lifetime of pain. The experience moved Dean Kuipers so much that he spent the past decade crafting the memoir “The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, a Family, and the Land That Healed Them,” which he’ll be discussing and signing Friday night at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena.
“The change that came over my dad and our family was so remarkable that my two brothers and I all felt it and talked about it, and I wanted to bring this story to other families,” says Kuipers, who was deputy editor of the former Pasadena Weekly sister newspaper LA Citybeat. “Honestly, I thought that if our family could change then any family could change, and maybe getting your hands in the dirt is one way to do it that has a good chance of working.
“His life was a series of strategies to avoid communicating in any way,” Kuipers continues. “I guess he was so insecure that he was constantly looking for a way to be beyond scrutiny. But once we started working on the cabin property — cutting and regrowing trees, seeding fields to rye and buckwheat, planting berry bushes — he couldn’t avoid the communication. The place talked to him, and suddenly he realized it was OK to talk to us. He became a real chatterbox.”
Writing the book often proved difficult. Kuipers had been raised in a small town environment that placed a great deal of importance on not airing dirty laundry. At the same time, he was happy to share the lessons he learned about the connection “between the human-nonhuman community,” and the fact that bonding with nature led to bonding among his family.
“My brother Brett suggested we improve the habitat to make it better for ruffed grouse and woodcock, but Bruce refused,” says Kuipers. “The soil was pure beach-sand and Dad was afraid that if we cut down any of the crappy plantation trees someone had planted 50 years before, that nothing would ever grow back. The more we suggested changes, the more he was gripped by fear.
“This book is really about the moment when we all said we were going to quit seeing him and so he relented and cut seven acres of trees on the property,” he adds. “It was a huge risk for us, too, because if the trees didn’t come back then we would have validated his world view that we were worthless and that the earth was failing him. But when trees came blasting out of the ground the following spring, our father became a different person. He was kissing me, hugging me, saying he loved me. He suddenly had utter confidence in us and expressed interest in all of our ideas. It was so satisfying to see the old man truly, honestly enjoying himself and enjoying our company.”
Kuipers has built a strong career in journalism, with two prior nonfiction books: “Operation Bite Back,” a 2009 recounting of the story of eco-radical Rod Coronado and the use of domestic terrorism charges against US environmental activists, and 2007’s “Burning Rainbow Farm,” about the 2001 FBI shooting of two libertarian pot activists on a farm in Michigan. He was also an editor at Spin and Raygun magazines, with cover stories on David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins, the Rolling Stones, Marilyn Manson and many others, and has written for Playboy and Rolling Stone as well.
Looking at his own life as a father to one son and two stepsons, he hopes “The Deer Camp” shows the importance of “giving kids a chance to develop their own relationship to the earth.” He recently took his 19-year-old son to the deer camp and watched him break his attachment to electronic screens and develop a passion for working with the earth as well — a key sign that he has managed to guide his own family in a healthier fashion than his father had.
“One of the reasons I wrote this book is that this basic family dynamic has to change,” says Kuipers. “Nobody should tolerate this kind of treatment. And young men and women should not be raised believing their lover or partner exists just to soak up all their madness. My father made himself very lonely for a dozen years or so after my mom divorced him, but then he became a much better person, someone who was wonderful to be around. If that stubborn guy could change, probably anybody can.”
Dean Kuipers discusses and signs “The Deer Camp” at 7 p.m. Friday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. For more information, call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromansbookstore.com.