Former editor at the Los Angeles Times, and acclaimed freelance journalist for outlets including Outside, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, The Atlantic, Playboy, Wired and L.A. Weekly, Dean Kuipers is known for his thoughtful and immersive narratives about environmental politics, social issues, culture, arts and human nature. His books have covered everything from activism (Burning Rainbow Farm and Operation Bite Back) to our perception of speed in contemporary culture (I Am A Bullet, with images by artist Doug Aitken). In his new memoir, The Deer Camp- A Memoir of a Father, a Family, and the Land that Healed Them, Kuipers once again explores how environment reflects and often directs inter-personal relationships, in this case the writer's connection to his father as they worked on a wildlife habitat project in Michigan. Here, advancing two L.A. area book launch events this week, Kuipers shares an excerpt from his latest and most personal work.
Later in life, my father Bruce and I would develop a great relationship. But in this excerpt, it is 1979 and I am 15 and it’s one of the worst summers ever and it’s mostly his fault. I am alone in the woods for months with a chainsaw and a tractor, ten miles from home, nearly cut my leg off below the knee, and had taken to talking out loud to the crows and bluejays. I was working furiously to clear the site for our new house – and then Dad shows up. -D.K.
Football workouts had already begun in the muggy, still days of August outside of Kalamazoo, and I had assembled a pile of stumps and uprooted dogwoods and slash as big as our old house, a heap about forty feet across and twelve feet high. I am a hell of a worker and I’d done a hell of a job. I had really only moved the pile about fifty yards and greedily cut out all the usable firewood, but it took several months. I’d probably sold two full cords of wood at forty bucks a rick, so it didn’t pay. I’d moved the logging debris from the spot where the walk-out basement would go to the spot where the new garage would sit, and it was ready to be trucked away or buried. But he saw a cheaper and stupider alternative.
“We’ll burn it,” he declared.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. Our one-acre clearing stood in a hardwood forest of several hundred acres, most of which was owned by other people.
“What?” he demanded, challenging me. “What else you going to do?”
“Get your excavator to bury it. Or truck it over to the gravel pit.”
“Ah, horseshit. We’ll burn it and it’ll be gone.”
Everything in the pile was wet and caked with black mud, so we picked up used motor oil and old tires from Mr. Purk at the Marathon gas station in Texas Corners. We loaded them into the Jesse, an old, red, three-speed Ford F100 pickup which Dad had bought for the construction of the house. We added enough petrochemical energy to the pile to melt that black forest soil into glass. Dad leaned in wearing a white T-shirt and his straw cowboy hat and put a match to it and the pile exploded like a bomb, puffing his hat off his head and sending an enormous fireball boiling up into the sky far above the fifty-foot-high treetops.
And then the old tires caught fire, puking black smoke and twenty-foot flames into the lower branches of the overhanging trees.
Within a minute or two, we had a crown fire. I imagined hot ash raining down on the Polderman girls next door in their pool, the only other house in sight, ruining my chances forever.
Dad started shouting, “Well, FUCK! Fucking trees! Get the goddamn saw!”
I ran to the Jesse and retrieved the saw and Dad jerked it to life and started cutting down the trees as they burned, running from one to the next. I had worked all summer to protect those trees, to clear a place between them where the new house could be built to look like the trees had grown up around it, but down they went. Dead and flaming limbs crashed down around us as he kept shoving his cowboy hat down on his head, grimacing in panic. One old hickory snag about sixty feet tall burned like a flaming sword. He hunched under his hat as if it were a helmet, like it would stop a three-ton limb from crushing him. It was so not funny that I burst into laughter from sheer terror, running through the forest putting out spot fires in the dry leaves with a shovel, barely able to contain myself. I had worked like a slave for months to make this place for us, and now Dad was going to destroy it in ten minutes.
As he sawed, the fire pile roared with the sound of a wheezing jetfighter, getting hotter and hotter. He cut through the flaming snag and I helped him push it over, burning branches raining down on us as we felled it smashing into the fire. It kicked up clouds of sparks and hot ash billowing skyward. I ran through the woods giggling idiotically, extinguishing hot ashes.
When I didn’t see any more wisps of smoke coming up from the forest duff I sagged back toward the fire. I was exhausted and a little hysterical. Dad and I were forced to stand far back from the inferno. He looked at the tears running down my face and shouted, “What’s so funny?!”
“YOU!” I screamed. “You and that stupid hat!”
“What?” he shouted, his eyes flashing anger. Bruce had a horrible temper. His mouth twisted into a snarl and held there, and then broke into a smile. His shoulders dropped and he bent over at the waist, and it was like he was vomiting he was laughing so hard. He knew he had completely botched this and almost lost the whole woods, maybe even killed us. He had botched my job. His hat was scorched and smudged with black ash and fell off his head again. His white T-shirt was ripped and black. At one point he had fallen off a downed tree he was sawing and got a big bloody cut. Both of us were banged up and looked like we had a bad sunburn. The saw was so hot it ticked.
He straightened up and tears streaked his dirty face. I was fifteen and he was thirty-five and we seemed to be the same age, like two teenagers who had just run through the middle of the night after stealing beer or a live chicken.
“I was going to send you to John Polderman’s to get the fire department,” he said, holding his breath in order to get the words out, heaving. “OH, God!” He couldn’t stop laughing.
“Oh, that would have been great: ‘Hi, I’m the new neighbor. We never took the time to introduce ourselves before, but we’ve set your woods on fire,’” I said.
“Oh, I know! I know!” he roared. “Shit oh dear! Ha ha ha! We just about burned down the whole damn township! Oh, son.”
The heat of the fire dried our eyes; the furnace-like blast of the pile belched a column of black tire smoke that blotted out the sky. Little puffs of white smoke curled off the downed trees. The cicadas and tree frogs were hushed in horror. We stopped laughing after a while and drank all our water and then went back to looking for spot fires in the woods.
The fire burned all night and into the next day, and we took turns watching it ’round the clock, sleeping in the Jesse and getting replenishments of bag lunches and water and thermoses of coffee. There was nothing else we could do: the fire was white-hot in the center and you’d need one of those oil-well-fire specialists like Red Adair to snuff it. In the morning, we fired up the tractor and started pulling ten-foot dogwood and red maple saplings out of the woods, because Dad’s biggest complaint was that he couldn’t see through the understory. We threw the live trees on the fire, where they disappeared like they were paper.
A couple months later, I got a job in the meat department at the Hardings grocery in Portage. My brothers Brett and Joe were then eleven and nine, old enough to swing an axe, and I didn’t work for Dad anymore.
© Dean Kuipers 2019, Bloomsbury Publishing
Dean Kuipers signs and discusses The Deer Camp (with journalist Joe Donnelly) at Chevalier’s Books, 126 N. Larchmont Blvd.; Wed., May 15, 7 p.m. and at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; Fri., May 17, 7 p.m.