IN THE SUMMER of 1989, 45-year-old Bruce Kuipers bought a 95-acre deer-hunting camp just north of Muskegon on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. The recently divorced father of three young men — 25, 20, and 18 years of age at the time of the acquisition — Bruce was best known to his family for his love of hunting, his perennial philandering, and his stubborn adherence to doing things his way. For his sons, this paternal inflexibility had long since manifested itself in Bruce’s dogged adherence to at least the stated tenets (if not the practices) of the Christian Reformed Church, and a particular — one might even say a compulsive — approach to hunting and fishing. As kids, the Kuipers boys were encouraged more than shown how to catch trout and kill deer. Their successes brought out their father’s unbridled pride and enthusiasm; their failures earned his scorn and ridicule.
Bruce’s compulsivity and intransigence were on full display during his first year of his ownership of the deer camp. He insisted that the cabin curtains be kept drawn at all times, lest a human silhouette spook a stray deer months ahead of hunting season. The sons were forbidden from lighting cigarettes outside, or letting their dogs loose on the land. Any and all ecological aspects of the property were also deemed untouchable, even though alterations to the land — particularly its sandy soil composition — were the best bet for enhancing the local deer population.
Perhaps not surprisingly with such strictures in place, the author, Dean, his middle brother, Brett, and their youngest brother, Joe, spent little time at their father’s deer camp. But over the course of the next 20-odd years, the Kuiperses’ acreage became a site where familial relationships were recast. Haunted by depressive and suicidal episodes as a young man, Joe found solace hunting and fishing with his father; Brett would end up getting a master’s in woodland management, which enabled him to re-envision the possibilities of the family’s land holdings, even as Bruce remained — for some time — resistant to his proposed innovations. Dean, meanwhile, worked as a journalist based first in New York and subsequently in Los Angeles, often penning stories about environmental activists and movements, but increasingly finding himself back in Michigan, at the deer camp where his brothers, wife, and — eventually — their children also found themselves drawn.
As the Kuiperses’ family history unfolds, a reader is reminded a little of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, with the ecological sensibility of Edward Abbey hovering in the background. Initially, men in this family are most at ease sitting silently in deer blinds. As their time together increases, though, the brothers begin to learn, with some good-natured laughter, how little they actually know one another. At one point, Dean observes retrospectively that he and his brothers were in suspended animation, waiting throughout much of their adult lives for their father to grow up so they could follow suit: “[W]e were like him. We were all living some version of the childish adult and were as lost as he was. We needed to see him mature so we knew the way.”
As affecting as the Kuipers family evolution is, what makes The Deer Camp so memorable and engrossing is the wider environmental frame by which the author asks us to think about relationships. What brings the Kuiperses together, quite literally, is the acreage they return to year after year — through which they engage with one another and the ground. In a revelatory, understated way, The Deer Camp thinks through environmental subjects like restorative farming and ecopsychology in order to reassess how people interact both with others and themselves.
Early on in The Deer Camp, when Dean is in the midst of cleaning out his childhood closet, he comes upon a quote from the ecologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson that he had kept taped to his dorm room in college:
You decide that you want to get rid of the byproducts of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system of Lake Erie is part of your wider eco-mental system — and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated into the larger system of your thought and experience.
Bruce, Dean, Brett, and Joe all face, at different points in time, mental disquiet and anguish, as does the boys’ mother on the heels of her abrupt divorce from Bruce. And these bouts isolate each of these family members, drawing them into enclosed spaces where they become lethargic and passive.
Another book that lurks within The Deer Camp is Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, through which Dean reads the effects of his father’s land purchase on the Kuipers family. Leopold, one of the founding figures in the field of wild game management, tells the story of his own family’s efforts at restoring decayed cornfields on their property. As Dean recounts Leopold’s story, “The more the place responded to their restoration work, the more they all loved it. It wasn’t an economic transaction; it was a love relationship. It was relatedness. The love they felt for each other came partly from the land.”
As Brett becomes more knowledgeable about land management, he and Bruce clash over the Kuiperses’ deer camp. Brett believes the sandy soil can be rectified with ample fertilizer and lime, and that the towering Scots pines on the property need to be replaced with aspens (it turns out aspen trees provide the ideal habitat for white-tailed deer). Bruce remains convinced that the soil on their property is simply bad, that razing the pines will leave the land barren, and that overfertilization will only further burn out the sand. Half-measures fail, but when Brett’s plan is adopted in full, when Bruce steps back and cedes control over the deer camp, the results are staggering:
One- to two-foot-tall sapling trees stood thick like a field of grass, thousands and thousands of them, glowing incandescent green and yellow-white and magenta where they jutted up through the bracken fern and knapweed and foxtail. The new trees were backlit by the last of the spring sun and caught midleap as they busted out of the sandy earth. The dinner-plate-sized stumps were barely discernible, turned gray and brown by winter, buried under the flags of new saplings. Just about every inch of orange, pine-needled sand displayed new trees.
For those of us old enough to remember the 1970s, it was not unusual back then for ecologists to sound a little like mystics. The subsequent balkanization of conversations about the health of the planet have largely left behind the richness of this past discourse. Instead, we are more inclined to hear “scientists” face off, helplessly, against “deniers” of global warming.
The Deer Camp harkens to an era in which science and spiritualism were viewed as symbiotically connected. Late in the book, Dean dips back into A Sand County Almanac when he reminds us of Leopold’s musings about geese:
[S]omehow, geese returning to Wisconsin from the subtropics predict with great accuracy when the ice is off the ponds back home. They don’t return on the same day each year, but only when they are certain of the ice-out and their own safety from winter-sharpened fangs. These geese are too exhausted from the journey to turn around and go back south again if they’re wrong. “His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges,” Leopold wrote.
Without being too heavy-handed, Dean braids his belief in landscape with his reflections on the winding, bumpy path his own family took toward growing closer. His book is a scientifically and personally grounded treatise that asks us to take the notion of an “ecological unconscious” seriously. The Deer Camp is a captivating exploration of what one can learn from the natural world, and our dependence on this knowledge for our own well-being.
Douglas Trevor is the author most recently of the short story collection The Book of Wonders (SixOneSeven Books). He is a professor of creative writing and English literature at the University of Michigan.