“My dad had a difficult time. He was, I think, an insecure person and had a lot to hide,” said Dean Kuipers, whose newly published memoir excavates a troubled past, a strained familial relationship and the long but rewarding path to healing.
The author will return to the Wood River Valley for a free reading and discussion at The Community Library this Friday, May 31, at 5 p.m.
The book, “The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, a Family, and the Land That Healed Them,” was released just over two weeks ago, on May 14. It represents Kuipers’ first venture into autobiography, though he has led a distinguished career as a journalist with articles appearing in the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Travel & Leisure, Outside and more.
His previously published books, 2009’s “Operation Bite Back” and 2007’s “Burning Rainbow Farm,” both touch upon true stories of the tense and often inharmonious relationships between humans and the environment.
Humanity’s place in the natural world is something that has long preoccupied Kuipers.
“I studied ecology for a long, long time,” he said, “and there’s a whole school of psychology wrapped into that called ‘eco-psychology,’ which takes steps towards an ecology of mind. We’re only a subset of a larger communicative order.”
Tapping into this “communicative order,” contemplating it and understanding it, provides one with a different perspective on life, and—in Kuipers’ case—helps generate the tools needed to mend interpersonal bridges.
Through all of Kuipers’ childhood, his father was aloof and troubled.
“He was having a lot of affairs, and my mom knew about them,” Kuipers said. “He tried to keep control over the household by tamping down any talk at all. He ruled with an imperious, threatening silence.”
As much as he struggled with personal and familial relationships, though, Kuipers’ father took solace in nature as an avid outdoorsman, often taking his three sons on camping, fishing and hunting trips. Those excursions laid the groundwork for the future author’s love of nature, and provided vital glimpses into the misanthropic father’s true personality.
“Later, much later in our lives, when I was in my 40s, my mom had divorced my dad, all of their conflicts had played out and the whole family scattered,” Kuipers said. “It didn’t scatter in a good way.”
Of course, the story did not end then, but, rather, that’s when it truly began.
Around that time, Kuipers’ father purchased a 100-acre plot in Michigan to serve as a hunting camp.
“The deer camp became a catalyst for how our relationship finally changed,” Kuipers said.
Initial visits to his father’s new property merely reaffirmed the elder Kuipers’ communicative shortcomings, but before completely resigning himself to this reality, Kuipers’ brother Brett made one “last-ditch effort,” hatching a plan to rejuvenate his father’s land with a habitat restoration project.
Over a period of time, the brothers would fell much of the aspen forest, till the soil in some areas, plant new seedlings in others and—in short—jumpstart a period of regrowth in the forest, stripping away manmade boundaries and plots and restoring the area to its natural state.
According to Kuipers, his father was staunchly against the idea, believing that the forest would not regrow and the brothers would irreparably ruin something that was perfectly acceptable, rather than enacting a change for the better.
He was wrong.
“We tore down the old trees, and the next spring new trees boiled out of the sand, and my dad had completely changed,” Kuipers said. “It was about these trees. When the trees came up, he just found a renewed faith that nature still worked and that his kids weren’t going to screw it all up, and he could relax and let somebody else be in charge. He could let somebody else’s idea be his idea.”
Life, and in particular nature, had provided every author’s dream: a perfect, authentic, summative metaphor for a real-world occurrence. That real-life metaphor laid the foundations for “The Deer Camp.”
Through his own personal story, Kuipers hopes to demonstrate to readers that it is possible for people to change for the better.
“A relationship is about real talking,” he said. “Both sides have to be talking and respected and open. For 40 years of my life, my dad wasn’t interested in a relationship. Suddenly, we had one, and it was because we had a relationship with the land.”
The residents of the Wood River Valley have ample, almost unrestricted access to the land, and countless opportunities to engage with their natural world in a meaningful way.
“I encourage people to go hiking and snowshoeing and skiing and hunting and fishing and get out there as much as possible,” said the author, who has visited Sun Valley many times in the past few decades. “That’s putting one foot into nature. The other foot goes in when you start to do the work, when you volunteer for the river cleanup, when you work to improve the habitat. When you start to do that, that’s when it clicks. That’s when you get a relationship.”
Kuipers’ reading will begin at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 31, at The Community Library in Ketchum. Visit comlib.org for details.