“A slow, tacking flight: float then flap. Then a pirouette and it has swung on to a different tack, following another seam through the moor as if it is tracking a scent. It is like a disembodied spirit searching for its host...” — description of the strongest of all harriers, the goshawk, by James Macdonald Lockhart in his book, “Raptor: A Journey Through Birds”
We’re watching a female red-tail hawk rejecting the smaller male’s romantic overtures barely 50 yards overhead.
“There it is. Ahh, the male has full extension. So does his girlfriend. I see this every day from here. This courting ritual . . . testing each other’s loyalty. Watching them in a talon lock, spiraling down, now that’s an amazing sight.”
I’m with Chris Hatten on his 10 acres overlooking the Siletz ecosystem on a gravel road. Saying he lives for that typical red-tail hawk behavior would be an understatement. His passion for raptors has taken him to many parts of the globe, and those trips involved exhilaration, danger, risks to his life and the trials and tribulations of living primitively in tropical zones which Westerners sometimes deridingly call undeveloped countries or third world nations.
We are traipsing around his property where Chris is 90 percent finished with a two-story 1,400-square-foot home, a modern efficient house he has been building for two years from a kit out of Lynnwood, Washington.
He told me he’ll never do that again — building a full-sized house.
The 42-year-old Hatten got a hold of my name when he found out I write about Oregon coastal people with compellingly interesting lives. He is in the midst of witnessing adjoining land (more than a hundred acres) to his property about to be clear-cut — forested hillside owned by Hancock Timber Resource Group, part of John Hancock Insurance (now owned by a Canadian group, Manulife Financial).
When he first bought the land eight years ago, representatives of Hancock told him that the company had so much timberland it would take years, maybe a decade, to get to this piece of property.
We discuss how Lincoln City and Lincoln County might prevent a clear cut from the side of the hill all the way down to Highway 101. “It’s amazing to witness in this coastal area — that depends on tourism — all this land clear-cut as far as the eye can see."
The red-tail hawk pair circles above us again, while a Merlin flits about alighting on a big Doug fir.
When he first saw the property — an old homestead which was once a producing dairy farm — Chris said two eagles cawed above where he was standing, which for a birdman is a positive omen and spiritual sign of good health. He calls his place “The Double-Eagle.”
Non-traditional student backpacks into jungles
He’s not living in the house per se, but rather he has a tent he calls home. “I feel suffocated inside four walls. I want to hear animals, hear the wind, be on the ground.” He’s hoping to rent out the house.
His current kip is setup near a black bear den, where mother bruin and her two cubs share an area he is willing to stay away from. “The mother bear and I have an understanding. We don’t bother each other.”
He’s part Doctor Dolittle, part Jim Fowler (from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom) and part John Muir. My own intersections with blokes and women around the world like him have put me eye-to-eye with pygmy elephants in Vietnam, great hammerheads off Baja, king cobras in Thailand, schools of barracudas off Honduras, and a pack of 20 javelina chasing me along the Arizona-Mexico border.
Hatten’s wildlife adventures indeed take it up a few notches.
“When I finished high school, I wanted to follow my dreams.” That was at Saint Mary’s in Salem, a school that was so constricting to Chris he had already been saving up dollars for a one-way ticket out of the country.
He had started working young — aged eight — picking zucchini and broccoli in fields near where his family of six lived. “You feel invincible when you are young. You’re also more adaptable and more resilient.”
He ended up in Malaysia, which then turned into trekking throughout Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, East Timor and even down south to Darwin, Australia.
Those two years, from age 17 to 19, are enough to fill two thick memoirs. Upon returning to Salem, he applied to the National Park Service and bought a one-way ticket to Alaska, working the trails in small groups who lived in tents and cleared trails with 19-Century equipment — saws, shovels, picks, pry bars.
With his cash stake growing, he headed back south, by mountain bike, along the Prudhoe-Dalton Highway. He hit Prince George, Vancouver Island and stopped in the Olympics.
He then worked summers and attended Chemeketa College in Salem.
Homeless-but-inspired at Evergreen State College
He wanted to study temperate rainforests, so he showed up unannounced hoping for an audience with a well-known scientist and faculty member — Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, who is an expert in temperate forests and sap maples. Chris had read the book she co-authored, “Forest Canopies.”
Before showing up to Evergreen, Chris had developed a sling-shot contraption to propel ropes into forest canopy. He barged into Nadkarni’s office with his invention. She was surprised Chris wasn’t already student, but she quickly made sure he enrolled in the environmental studies program.
Spending his last dollar on tuition, Chris resorted to sleeping in a tent and inside his 1988 Honda Civic while using campus rec department showers. He told me he received free produce on Tuesdays when the farmers market would pass out vegetables and fruit after a day’s sales.
Another faculty member, Dr. Steve Herman, motivated Chris to really delve into ornithology. He recalls coastal dune ecology trips, from Olympia in motor pool vans, all the way into the southern reaches of Baja. “We looked at every dune system from Baja all the way back north to Florence.”
The ornithologist Herman was also a tango aficionado, and Chris recalled the professor announcing to his students many times, in the middle of dunes in Mexico, it was time for some tango lessons. “He told us there was more to life than just science.”
In the eye of the eagle: Part II
“My life’s work has been to produce scientists who will seek to protect wildness. But I also just really enjoy teaching people about birds. I’ve been lucky to get to do that for a very long time.”
— Steve Herman, Evergreen State College faculty emeritus Steve Herman, 2017
Chris laments the lack of real stretches of wilderness in Oregon, most notably along our coast. These are postage stamp areas, he emphasizes, around Drift Creek, Rock Creek, Cape Perpetua, but “it’s abysmal.” “We have the Cascades in Washington and the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia and lots of wilderness in Alaska. But really, nothing along the Pacific in Oregon.”
After camping in the forest around Evergreen College, Chris still had the travel bug bad. On one foray, he went to Thailand, studying the mangrove forests there. He traveled with Thai army anti-poaching teams who went after poachers. He came across poachers’ camps, witnessed firefights and saw a few poachers laid out dead. “The captain gave me a pistol and one bullet. He said the torture would be so bad if I got captured by tiger poachers that I’d beg for a bullet.”
He has worked on the island of Hawaii with the US Geological Survey focusing on a biocomplexity project looking at how mosquitoes are moving higher and higher because of global warming. The consequences are pretty connected to other invasives — pigs introduced to the islands several centuries ago — disturbing the entire natural ecosystem.
“Pigs chew down the ferns, and places that have never seen pooled water before are now wet troughs where mosquitoes can now breed.” Those insects carry avian malaria and, alas, endangered honey creepers can’t adjust to the mosquitoes like their cousins elsewhere who have evolved over millennia to just rub off the insects. The honey creeper is being decimated by this minor but monumental change.
Right after matriculating from Evergreen with a bachelor’s of science, Chris ended up in Panama, working throughout Central America rehabilitating, breeding and introducing Harpy Eagles — the biggest forest eagle in the world with a wingspan of six and a half feet — into their native jungle habitat.
“These are massive birds. They dwarf our American bald eagle, for sure. My job was to follow them when the fledglings were grown and released.” He acted like an adult Harpy who catches prey and puts it in the trees for the youngster to eat and learn some hunting skills. Frozen rats, GPS backpack transmitter fashioned on the birds and orienteering throughout Belize and Southern Mexico were his tools.
“It sort of blew me away that here I was living the dream of studying birds in a rainforest.”
Territorial ranges for these birds spread into Honduras and south to Colombia. Wild Harpies eat sloth, aunt eaters, howler monkeys, even giant Military Macaws.
He ended up in the Petén, Tikal (originally dating back 2,000 years), one of Central America’s premier Mayan archeological and tourist sites.
His role was to study the orange-breasted falcon, a tropical raptor which is both endangered and stealth. “We got to live on top of pyramids off limits to anyone else,” he says, since the bird was using the pyramids as nesting and breeding grounds.
He recalls tiring of the tourists down below repeating the fact that one of the Star Wars movies was filmed here — “I got tired of hearing, ‘Wow, is this really where Yavin 4, A New Hope, was filmed? We’re really here.’”
Imagine respecting this ancient Mayan capital, and studying amazing raptors as the antithesis of goofy tourista comments.
No 9-to-5 working stiff
He tells me that his idols are people like Jane Goodall and David Attenborough. While he went to school in a conservative Catholic setting where his peers were mostly farm kids — and some were already pregnant and married before graduation — his family was not of the same stripe.
“We were like the people in the movie ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’’’ he says with a laugh. His parents took the brood to the Oregon Coast a lot, and that 1976 yellow VW van’s starter was always going out. “I remember we had my sister and mom blocking the intersections in places like Lincoln City while we pushed the van to get it started.”
He has a brother, Steve, an RN in Portland, and another Portland-based brother, Mark, owner of a micro-car shop. His older sister, Amy, is a newspaper journalist in Grand Junction, Colorado — a real lifer, with the written word coursing through her blood. She has encouraged Chris to write down his story.
Their mother went to UC-Berkley, and has been a public education teacher for more than 25 years. Their father (divorced when he was 12) got into real estate but is now living in New Zealand.
That one-way ticket to Singapore that got him into Southeast Asia, ended with him running out of money after a year, but he was able to get to Darwin, Australia, by paying a fishing boat in East Timor to get him down under illegally. He spent time picking Aussie Chardonnay grapes to stake himself in order to see that continent.
He was blown away by the kangaroo migration, a scene that involved a few million ‘roos kicking up great clouds of red dust. He ended up going through Alice Springs to see the sacred Uluru (formally known as Ayers Rock). He met undocumented immigrants from El Salvador and Greece while making money picking oranges.
We talk about some frightening times in our travels, and per usual, the worst incidents involved criminals or bad hombres, not with wildlife. For Chris, his close call with death occurred in Guatemala where he, his female supervisor (a Panamanian) and another raptor specialist were confronted by men on horses, brandishing machetes and leading tracker dogs.
“’We’ll let you live if you give us the woman.’ That’s what they gave us as our option.” The bird team went back into the jungle, the two male researchers buried their female companion with leaves, and then Chris and the other guy took off running all night long.
The banditos chased them through the jungle. He laughed saying they ran virtually blind in places where eyelash vipers (one bite, and three steps and you’re dead), coral snakes and tropical rattlesnakes lived in abundance.
“It’s a very creepy feeling being hunted by men with dogs.” Luckily, the female team member headed out the opposite direction, with a radio. All in a day’s work for environmentalists.
That’s saying, “all in a day’s work,” is ominous since we both talk about how most indigenous and local environmental leaders in so many countries have been murdered by loggers, miners, oil men, ranchers, and coca processors — many times executed by paid-for military soldiers.
Never return or there will be tears
Two telling quotes from world-renowned traveler and writer Paul Theroux strike me as apropos for a story about Chris Hatten:
• Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going.
• You go away for a long time and return a different person — you never come all the way back.
We talk about a crackling campfire being the original TV, and how being out in wilderness with five or 10 people for an extended period gets one really connected to working with people and counting on them to be friends and support.
“It’s tough going back to places I’ve been,” he says with great lamentation. In Borneo, a return trip years later discombobulated him. “The rainforest is being plowed over daily. I couldn’t tell where I was walking miles and miles through palm oil plantations. It was as if the jungle had been swallowed up.”
What once was a vibrant, multilayered super rich and diverse place of amazing flora and fauna has been turned into a virtual desert of a monocrop.
This reality is some of the once most abundant and ecologically distinct places on earth are no longer that. “This is the problem with any wildlife reintroduction program. You can breed captive animals like, for instance, the orangutan but there’s nowhere to release them. Everywhere is stripped of jungle, healthy habitat.”
The concept of rewilding any place is becoming more and more theoretical.
We climb the hill where the clear-cut will occur. Chris and I talk about a serious outdoor education center — a place where Lincoln County students could show up for one, two or three days of outdoor learning. We’re serious about reframing the role of schools and what youth need to have in order to be engaged and desirous of learning.
That theoretical school could be right here, with Chris as the lead outdoor/ecological instructor.
All those trees, terrestrial animals, avian creatures, smack dab on an estuary leading to a bay which leads to the Pacific is highly unique — and a perfect place from which to really get hands on learning as the core curriculum.
We imagine young people learning the history, geology, biology and ecology of where they live. Elders in the woods teaching them how to smoke salmon, how to build a lean-to, how to see outside the frame of consumption/purchasing/screen-time.
Interestingly, while Chris has no desire to have children, he has taught tropical biology/ecology to an international student body at the Richmond Vale Academy on the island of Saint Vincent (part of the Grenadines).
Koreans, Russians, Venezuelans, Peruvians and Vincennes learned organic farming, bio-fuel production, solar power design, how to grow passion and star fruit. There is even a little horse program in the school, founded by two Danes.
Chris said that the local population is taught about medicinal plants, recycling and responsible waste disposal. “Everything used to be wrapped in banana leaves in their grandparents’ time. Now there is all this single-use plastic waste littering the island.
Like the dynamic rainforest that once carpeted the Central Coast — with herds of elk, wolves, grizzlies and myriad other species — much of the world is being bulldozed over, dammed and mined. Wildlife leave, stop breeding, never repopulate fractured areas where human activities are the norm.
But given that, when I asked Chris where he might like to go now, he mentioned Croatia, his mother’s side of the family roots. He might have swum with 60-foot-long whale sharks and kayaked over orcas, but Chris is still jazzed up about raptors — maybe he’d end up on the Croatian island of Cres which is a refuge for the spectacular griffon vulture.
“Nature has a purpose beyond anything an extraction-based society puts its monetary value on trees. We have to show young people there is value to natural ecosystems beyond extracting everything for a profit.”
One-Minute Q & A
Paul Haeder — What is your life philosophy?
Chris Hatten — Make the best use of your time. Time is short.
PH — How do we fix this extractive "resources" system that is so rapacious?
CH — We need to value forests for the many multitude of services they provide, not just quick rotations. Forests are not the same as fields of crops.
PH — Give any young person currently in high school, say, in Lincoln County, advice on what they might get out of life if they took your advice? What's that advice?
CH — Get off your phone, lift up your head, see the world for yourself as it really is, then make necessary changes to it and yourself.
PH — What's one of the most interesting things you've experienced — what, where, when, why, how?
CH — I have had very poor people offer to give me all they had in several different countries. Strangers have come to my aid with no thought of reward.
PH — In a nutshell, define the Timber Unity movement to say someone new to Oregon.
CH — They are people who mostly work in rural Oregon in resource extraction industries and believe they are forgotten.
PH — If you were to have a tombstone, what would be on it once you kick the bucket?
CH — “Lived.”
Paul Haeder is a writer living and working in Lincoln County. He has two books coming out, one a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” and a non-fiction book, “No More Messing Around: The Good, Bad and Ugly of America's Education System.”