Dean Kuipers Recommends These Five Thinkers on Ecology and Psyche

(Editor’s Note: Orion contributor and journalist Dean Kuipers reflects on his new memoir, The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, a Family, and the Land that Healed Them (Bloomsbury) by exploring five authors of deep ecology and ecopsychology that shaped his narrative.)

The Deer Camp is the true story of how my family was put back together through working the land. My two younger brothers and I were raised as hunters and fishermen in Michigan, believing, as our father Bruce and our uncles did, that there was no greater skill than the assessment of habitat. In Dad’s world, the outdoors was paradise, and indoors was hell. He wrecked his marriage to our mother by unapologetically chasing women. Their long skid toward divorce drove me toward ecology and religion, and my youngest brother Joe to booze and acid.

In 1989, my father bought a 95-acre deer hunting property in Michigan and put a cabin on it. None of us wanted to go there with him. After a decade, my middle brother Brett proposed we do habitat work on the place, taking out an old pine plantation to create some aspen browse for grouse and woodcock and deer. We went to work with tractors and chainsaws, and our family’s relationship continued to grow worse. In 2004 a new forest poured up out of the sand. Dad greeted us that spring with hugs and kisses and said “I love you,” which hadn’t happened in many, many years. He was a different person, and it was mostly a result of the land’s restoration.

The Deer Camp is an ecopsychological story, the restoration of the land creating deep interior change. It’s informed by a lifetime of reading about the human-nature relationship. Here are five theorists discussed in the book, and how their concepts shaped my thinking and writing:

1. Gregory Bateson: What Thinks: Person plus Environment.

Bateson was a multidisciplinarian. He was married to Margaret Mead and pursued anthropology with her in the Pacific Islands pre-WWII. During his time as a cyberneticist in the 1940s, his work on systems theory led him to ponder “mindedness” as a function of nature. He didn’t believe human “thinking” happened in our heads, but, rather, that it was co-created by the world around us.

In his 1972 book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind he writes: “What thinks is the total system which engages in trial and error, which is man plus environment.” He followed this idea even further in Mind and Nature (1979), where he wrote, “You decide you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is part of your wider eco-mental system—and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.”

Earth is driven insane if it can’t function, and so we are too. I read Bateson when I was twenty years old, and when my family began restoring wild agency to nature, we were shocked at the result. Our minds—along with the land—healed.

2. W.S. Merwin: Imagination is Nature.

In 2010, I interviewed U.S. Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin, for the Los Angeles Times. We met at his home in Maui where he and his wife, Paula Merwin, were in the middle of a 40+-year project raising a native palm forest in a former pineapple field. Over dinner, we were discussing the source of poetry when Merwin said:

“The imagination is nature. There’s never been any separation.”

The imagination creates images and ideas, using input from our senses, memories and murky unconscious sources. During deer season, I loved going out to the deer blinds in the dark to wait for sunrise. At our camp in Michigan, I began sitting in the deer blinds at night, letting the darkness wash through me.

Merwin’s idea inhabited that place: if dark objects and creatures have imagination, are imagination, then they aren’t merely objects. They are subjects. They have subjectivity.

3. Jeannette Armstrong: Land-Dreaming Capacity.

In the essential collection of essays Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, educator and activist Jeannette Armstrong digs into her native Okanagan understanding of “mind.” She explains that Okanagan people understand their “selves” as being made up of four capacities: the physical self, the emotional self, the thinking/intellectual self, and the spiritual self.

The physical captured me most: “physical” is not just of the earth; it is the earth. The body is a part of the land. She notes that the tribal word for this physical self translates as “the land-dreaming capacity.”

I shuddered when I read this. We aren’t just a part of the earth: we dream its dreams. Our consciousness is part of its consciousness. This led me to all kinds of questions about our experience raising trees and planting bushes and native grasses:

Was the land itself calling out for change? Did the idea to replace those plantation pines come from the sand? I titled that chapter: “Does Sand Dream of Trees?” Today, a larger shared dream becomes obvious: our desire to address climate change is not just our own, but originates from the land itself.

4. Paul Shepard: Nature and Madness.

Shepard, a prolific scholar of human ecology, wrote about the development of our brains and culture during the Pleistocene ice ages. His 1982 book, Nature and Madness, begins:

“My question is: why do men persist in destroying their habitat?” Because, he answers, we are mad. Shepard’s theory however, is that the madness is not innate. He put forward a theory, based on Erik Erikson’s stages of child development and Shepard’s own observations of hunter-gatherers, that our modern ontogeny is broken. A fully realized relationship with Earth is encouraged in children and then ripped away at adulthood, preventing us from reaching maturity. Modern culture celebrates narcissistic adolescence, addiction to technology, violence, religious fundamentalism, and war, while becoming further separated from the language of nature. 

5. Wendell Berry: Small Solutions, Unrelentingly Practical.

In 2013 I corresponded with poet and agriculturalist Wendell Berry. When I asked how he responded to global crises such as species extinction or climate change, he answered:

“The problems are big, they are even big emergencies, but they can’t be solved by big solutions. What our understanding of nature tells us is that the big problems can be solved only by small solutions, unrelentingly practical, made by individuals in relation to small parcels of land farmed or forested or mined, in their home watersheds.”

At its most fundamental, problems like climate change result from humans in places, millions of places, and the solution is also in places. Planting one tree matters. Not everyone has a forest or farm, but there’s work to do in every watershed, shutting down cars, protecting native wildlife, gardening for food. When you let the outside in, it inhabits you and you can’t help but care about it. The outside becomes you.

Dean Kuipers is a former editor at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles CityBeat and other publications. He is also the author of Burning Rainbow FarmOperation Bite Back, and, with his wife Lauri Kranz, A Garden Can Be Anywhere. They live in Los Angeles.

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