When Dad's Land Finally Came to Life
Michigan-raised writer Dean Kuipers and his brothers had a problem with their father: he had alienated all of them, and his attempt to regain their affection with a hunting property he’d bought only made things worse. Then something wonderful happened, rooted in their shared love of wild places. An exclusive excerpt from Kuipers's new memoir ‘The Deer Camp.’
I pushed through the screen door of our cabin, worried about what I might find. It was the first fine week of spring 2004, and a warm wind off Lake Michigan gently raked the pollen out of the oak catkins. The redbuds and cherries were in bloom. It was heaven, and I wasn’t ready for this to be the last time I’d ever visit.
But I knew it might be. Over the 15 years we’d had this place, life with Dad had been a series of increasingly bitter battles, and we’d just been through the worst yet. We found no peace here. The previous summer had been excruciating, and during the year that had passed, we had stopped talking about it. I was in Michigan on a reporting trip and swung by the cabin to see whether we even had a family anymore.
All we had done was cut some trees.
My father, Bruce Kuipers, had bought these 95 acres as our deer-hunting camp and built a cabin on it, hoping it would be a place where he could hang out with me and my two brothers, Brett and Joe. The camp was a worn-out farm halfway up Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, a spit of blow sand and trees between the swamps near the North Fork of the White River. All around us were other hunting properties, wet federal land, farms, and U.S. Department of Agriculture pine plantations. The land was remote and beautiful and damaged, and it was in need of some habitat improvements.
But Dad didn’t want to touch anything. His rules included: no walking in the woods or making trails, no planting anything, no sitting in an undesignated spot, no dogs, no friends, no smoking, no drinking, no music unless it was Christian, no bonfires, no shoes in the house, and on and on. I was 40 years old, and I had to ask him if it was OK to go outside or open the curtains. (He didn’t like the deer to see us.) No changing anything.
And then we’d sawed down his trees. A forester had recommended that we create more of the young browse that grouse, woodcock, and deer love by logging off a gnarled old Scots pine plantation and a few acres of aspens. After we all threatened to never come back, Dad had finally relented. But we paid for it emotionally: he bitched and moaned and said we’d “wrecked the place” and that the sand would just dry out and turn into a dune. If no trees came up, he announced, he would probably sell the camp, and then we’d never see each other anymore.
So here I was, to look at those cut-over fields. As I put my bag down, Dad came in from the porch through the sliding door. I took a deep breath. I tried to read on his face whether the sandy fields had all turned to pure bull thistle or knapweed or something. I half-expected him to punch me.
“My boy!” Dad said. Then he wrapped me in a hug.
“Hi, Pop,” I said, preparing for a brief embrace. But he wouldn’t let go. We just stood there in a clench under the taxidermied head of Aunt Sally’s old buck, the first deer killed on this place, and he said, “I love you,” and kissed the side of my face. The last time he’d kissed me was probably a quarter-century earlier, when I was 16 and he and I were both baptized before a Christian Reformed Church congregation—which, for the record, had been Dad’s third baptism, a sprinkle-dunk-sprinkle suite that had to look a little suspect on the big board where they keep track of that kind of thing.
Dad had a lot of things to be happy about in the spring of 2004, first and foremost his wedding to a woman named Diane, which I’d witnessed, and maybe it made him a little gushy. She had been coaching him on being less rigid and less controlling, because she knew, like we did, that it was crippling. Dad’s construction company, Delta Design, was at a high point, too: only a few days before, he’d attended the ribbon cutting for the 120,000-square-foot Kalamazoo Air Zoo, a giant aviation museum and the most high-profile public structure he’d ever built.
But something else was happening. Dad’s face was different, his shoulders, his posture. I kept thinking it was a matter of facial hair or a more fitted shirt or something, but it eluded me. He had always been so incredibly stiff, afraid of emotion, and it was like he’d gone loose and floppy. Like he was broken.
Oh, God, I thought, we’ve done it. He’s come unmoored. The trees are dead, and it’s driven him mad.
When Dad first called me in 1989 to tell me he’d found us a deer camp, I was living in New York City, and I would tell anyone who asked that my father was dead. I told this lie to create some space to live, but his phone call made me feel terribly ashamed. I didn’t want to lie, but I couldn’t have him in my life. Despite being a hunter and a fisherman, I swore I’d never set foot on that property.
When I talked to Mom about the camp, she said, “Well, it’s the only thing he can think of that you boys will care about. If he just showed up in New York, you’d be mad at him.”
“Right, and that would be appropriate,” I said. “But he doesn’t want to face that. He wants to hide in the woods and have us come to him.”
“But it’s also how he signals that he feels bad,” Mom said. “He wants to give you something that he knows you’re going to love.”
We did love that piece of swamp. We couldn’t help it. He had taught us right from the start that wild places were where we really lived. When I was three and we lived near the Air Force base at Paine Field, north of Seattle, he hand-built me a boat, a two-seater wooden dinghy painted forest green, so we could fish our favorite lake in the Cascades. We moved back to Michigan to fish the good rivers, the Au Sable and the Manistee and the Pere Marquette, and to hunt pheasants and deer. We spent all our time looking for green spots on the map—the “good places,” Dad called them.
Home was not one of the good places. Dad didn’t know how to live there. Even while he was building the boat, he would slip away with some other woman and be gone for months at a time, sending no word, no money, no sign of coming back. He was six foot three, slim, and handsome, a Dutch American with olive skin and black hair and a brilliant smile and always dressed to prowl. Women liked him, and for the first 15 years of my life, he just went with whoever came his way. When he did come back to his marriage, he would not tolerate one word about where he’d been, and he’d get mean if we said anything. He locked all emotions away in a place of total control and silence. I was the oldest of my siblings, and we spent our childhoods poring over maps and begging Dad to go to this forest or that river, because that’s where we had fun with him. We had to get him out of the house, because that’s where things were good.
By the time Mom finally divorced him in 1988, we’d all developed our own relationship to the woods, including her. None of us needed him anymore. And then came this camp.
“It’s good to be here,” I said, with Dad still hugging me.
“Oh, it is so good that you make the effort to get out here,” he said. “It’s so important to your brothers. And look at this place, it’s just perfect.”
It was certainly different. All the blinds were up, the drapes pulled back, and the spring wind blew straight through open windows to lift and drop the pull cords against the wall, where they rattled like someone throwing dice on a table. A strip plantation of red pines stood between the house and the logged fields, and the tips of the pines glowed yellow-white as they heaved out their pollen cones and prepared to dust the swamps to the east. The coming twilight flowed cool and sweet all over the carpet.
It hit me then that Dad had allowed the gap between him and those fields to close. As much as he loved the woods, he had always treated this place as though it were untrustworthy. It would let him down. The sand wouldn’t grow any rye for the deer. The deer wouldn’t grow trophy antlers. He claimed that our plan to cut and regrow trees would fail because the sand had been “poisoned” or “salted” by farmers who came long before us.
But now the whole cabin was thrown open. The forest pushed itself against him, and he didn’t grimace or constantly dust himself off or slam the windows shut. He was exposed, fully exposed, and he was aiming his face into a breeze out of the southwest. After a minute, he turned away from the windows to put water on for tea. Something in him had released.
“If you can stay another day, the steelhead are still running in the Manistee,” he said. “Brett’s got most of the early planting done.”
I could see sky to the west, where the five acres of Scots pines had been. The low-angle sun shot through and flared on the windows. Dad held up a finger and then pointed toward the east, and we both stopped to listen to a grouse drumming on an old log on the edge of the big swamp.
When the thumping fluttered out, I said, “Let’s go look at those cuts. Is anything coming up?”
“What?” Dad said, looking confused.
“The Scots pine cut. The aspen cuts. How’s it looking?”
“Oh, it’s great. There’s a whole new forest there.”
“What? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“Oh, yeah, it all came up.”
“Well, aren’t you overjoyed? You were so worried! Shit!”
“I was never worried,” he said straight-faced. “Those cuts are going to fill in and be fabulous.”
The way he said it, it sounded like denial. I didn’t know how to take it. Dad was acting weird; he never said fabulous. Maybe the logging had broken his mind. Maybe the spring, with the big building, the wedding, the new wing he’d put on his own house for Diane, had been too much for him. I tugged open the slider, and we walked off the porch and started out.
The old relief surged through the soles of my boots. Through the glare from the west, beyond the red pines, I could make out the shapes of Joe, Brett, and Brett’s longtime girlfriend, Ayron, as they came out of the cut-over fields. A lone bullfrog whomped from a ditch. Oak pollen rained past in a sideways current, visible in the sun’s hard glow, and cottonwood seeds floated on it like tiny puffs of breath. The radiance was choked with a passing traffic of insect, spore, and seed. When we met in the red pines, there were hugs all around, but I was madly distracted by what was going on in that field.
Brett followed my gaze and said, “You better come out here and see.”
We walked across the two-track and into the Scots pine cut and Dad and Ayron were laughing together as I stopped with my mouth open. “It’s coming in pretty good,” Brett said as he bent down to examine a sapling.
One-to-two-foot-tall trees stood thick like a field of grass, thousands and thousands of them, glowing 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-size 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.
Tallest among them were the hand-size aspen saplings, with their heart-shaped leaves. But right beside these were new Scots pines and volunteer saplings of red and white oak, black cherry, beech, red pine, paper birch, red maple, sugar maple, yellow birch, a few white pines, even the odd Norway spruce that had migrated over from trees our Uncle Vern had planted along the road. We hadn’t planted a thing. This was all the colonizing work of bird and wind and squirrel and root sucker.
I had watched this sand from the deer blinds and wondered how it would react; now here it was, expressing itself. We had interrupted the pine plantations for the first time in more than 50 years, and the sand took advantage to press from its watery glacial heart exactly the trees that it wanted all along.
“This is unbelievable,” I said.
“Oh, it’s glorious,” Dad said. He bent down and ran his hands through the tops of the saplings like a farmer feeling heads of grain. “It’s coming in better than I hoped.”
“I didn’t know you had done any hoping,” Joe said.
“I told you it would grow!” Brett said, half-mocking Dad. “But you didn’t believe me.”
“Oh, come on,” Dad said, smiling. “I wouldn’t have gone ahead with the cut if I didn’t believe something would come back.”
“That is absolutely not true,” said Brett. “You believed the exact opposite.”
“Well, Brett, you’re really doing it,” Dad conceded. “It’s your plan.”
“All of us are doing it,” Brett said.
“With a little organic matter, our open fields will grow some grass, too,” said Joe, pointing toward the expanse of First Field, one of our cultivated areas where the winter rye had been turned under. Despite better nitrogen, it hadn’t done very well. “We’ve just got to pile on the manure or something.”
The conversation immediately turned to grass and how to improve the crops growing in First Field and another called Cabin Field. Dad and Brett started listing how much more lime we needed and varieties of grain to try and decided they’d ask the farmer next door, Joe Carter, if he had a cultipacker we could buy so we didn’t have to walk the seed in with tractor tires and feet. It was as if the forest coming up around our legs had never been in doubt, and now we were just moving on to other matters. Everything had changed. The cut that we feared would end our family was just its beginning; now we had real work to do.
We stood out there luxuriating in the new field for a while, and then we all walked back to the cabin and I had a beer. Joe indicated the vernal ditch just beyond the edge of Cabin Field, saying, “That’s where we need to put in a small orchard. Get some apple trees.”
“We need to try some berry bushes, too,” said Dad. “It probably all needs fence so it doesn’t get eaten up. The deer are going to be in here like stink.”
The spring air was cool but the low-angle sun burned my face. As we talked, we watched the last of it slosh around in the descending purple and royal blue of the night sky and finally drop into Lake Michigan behind the trees. Suddenly everyone hushed, and heads whipped toward the Scots pine cut. Joe had his finger up, waiting, as we stared through the stand of red pines at the last bits of sunlight painting the tops of the trees, and the sound came again, a piercing buzz, a strange electric cry that was half birdcall and half joy buzzer: peeeeeeennnt!
“A woodyfriller!” Ayron said. That was her word for woodcock.
A woodcock was doing its mating dance in the Scots pine cut. A couple of us grabbed lawn chairs and we hustled back out into the five-acre cut talking about Ayron’s nickname for the bird. Making up names for the woodcock is practically a sport unto itself. This little brown handful of heartbeat is the most nicknamed game bird in the country, variously called the timberdoodle, the mudbat, the night peck, the snipe or brush snipe, the night partridge, or the Labrador twister. Sometimes they’re called a bogbird or bogsucker because of their feeding method, which is to plunge their long prehensile beak into the thick black humus at the swamp’s edge and pop open their uniquely hinged jaw a bit to suck up a worm or a millipede. In some parts of North America, they’re called by their French name, la becasse. Ayron called them woodyfrillers.
We swished into the field and took up positions to watch the sky, but I could hardly take my eyes off the sand and trees. In the deepening purple twilight, the saplings there looked as dense and thick as calf-high buckwheat. A black cherry that had been left standing in the southeast corner of the cut shook slightly in the breeze and showered us with white petals.
I asked Dad, “Seriously, did you know it would come back like this?”
“Not quite like this,” he said.
“Ah, you dumbasses, what else was going to happen?” Brett said. “This is how forests work.”
“Well, hardly any grass has come up without mountains of fertilizer. I am totally freaking astonished,” I said.
“Hush!” said Ayron.
I tried to focus on the dance, idly letting the tips of the saplings poke into the palms of my hands. These trees changed everything. There are few moments in your life when you are overwhelmed with the realization that all time will be measured by that moment, before and after, and this was one; it was clear that we all knew it was significant because Brett, Joe, Ayron, and I were all sneaking looks at one another. We were prepared to be wrong, but the fields all around us were singing hallelujah.
This sand wasn’t struggling; it wasn’t infertile. It was delivering up a Promethean eruption of life. It was in upheaval. The land opened itself and came forth with an outburst of cells it had held within it, latent, an entire new forest just waiting in the sand for the cosmic signal, for release into a watery sky. The forest was growing so fast that I felt the saplings beneath my chair would lift me into the last of the sun.
Dad was like a completely different person. He was beaming. He had kissed me and said “I love you.” He had been pleased in the past couple years when I’d turn up here with my son, Spenser, but it always seemed to have a limit; he was happy to pull his grandson close but hold the forest off at arm’s length. No more. That gap had collapsed. He luxuriated in the sweet forest air. He grinned from ear to ear, with cherry flowers in his hair, and looked up into the sky like he was praying.
Dean Kuipers (@deankuipers) is a longtime contributor to Outside. ©Dean Kuipers. From The Deer Camp, to be published by Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.