The River Will Have the Last Word

Through deluge and drought, the legendary “Hawk Man of Iowa” has spent decades along a remote stretch of the Mississippi known as the Driftless Area. But can the river help him escape his grief when he needs it most?

The River Will Have the Last Word

“Meet me under the bridge,” says Jon “Hawk” Stravers. The bridge spans the Mississippi River between Marquette, Iowa, and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. I arrive early, not knowing who it is I will trust my welfare to on the river. But more than one person has told me, “If you want to understand the Driftless, you have to talk to Hawk.”

Covering parts of four states that share a shoreline with the Mississippi River—Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—the 24,000-square-mile Driftless region is more defined by a shared landscape of hills and coulees than by state boundaries. Named because the glaciers and their deposits of gravel and rocks—drift—passed it by two million years ago, the Driftless today is a distinctive bioregional culture, a culture that values all things small and local, including food, music, education, environment and media. Its un-Midwestern landscape attracts back-to-landers and off-the-gridders. One farmer described the area’s ambiance as “a tucked in feeling.” Co-ops, organic farms, and intentional communities abound. Residents on both sides of the river proudly say they are from the Driftless instead of claiming residence in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, or Wisconsin.

The Driftless region reminds me of Ernest Callenbach’s 1970s novel, “Ecotopia,” in which he imagined a breakaway region in the Pacific Northwest. This was an idealized paradise outside the mainstream of the industrial military complex where, Callenbach wrote, “The land is well cared for and productive. Food is plentiful, and wholesome, and recognizable. All life systems are operating on a stable-state basis, and can go on doing so indefinitely.” The Driftless region attracts people who did not let the flame of their idealism burn out. They have risked it all for birds and gardens, and engaged communities. Some people have moved in from other places, and some have moved back after realizing that the world outside the Driftless is missing something that they need.

Others, like Hawk Stravers, see the landscape as spiritual, a place to retreat to after experiencing loss. I have always been drawn to grief and sorrow; to the underdog and to the afflicted. I believe, as writer Terry Tempest once told me, that “what is most personal is most universal.” This is what has attracted me to the Driftless and ultimately to Hawk. I want to know if a landscape can heal. Does the Driftless, with its distinctive river bluffs and deep ravines, offer a road map in which to navigate through life’s most personal challenges? If anyone would know the answers to those questions it would be Hawk. His losses are considerable.

Hawk Stravers is a bespectacled bear of a man with a modest goatee and a healthy head of unruly white and grey hair tucked behind his ears. His left eye droops from ptosis. The ligament that attaches the muscle that pulls the lid up was unattached in his left eye at birth. His nickname originated in 1983, when the Iowa Conservationist called him “The Hawk Man of Iowa.” The Hawk part stuck and now everyone knows Jon as “Hawk.” His grandkids Sage and Jacob affectionately call him Hawk Daddy.

This morning, sixty-three-year-old Hawk wears Crocs, khakis, and a short-sleeve shirt. His jonboat is a mess, and a month later he will email me to ask if I had lost a cell phone that he discovered in his boat. His conversation wanders in bursts of stops and starts. I have the feeling he is testing me to see if I am trustworthy. He warns me that he is not always easy to get along with, that he has a big ego. He is stubborn and opinioned, but this only makes me want to get to know him better. Hawk is divorced. He is a Vietnam veteran and says he has used “the craziness that goes along with that” to cultivate a renegade image.

After an hour of tense conversation a peregrine falcon flies over the boat, although all I see is a fast-moving blur, like an arrow. Hawk, who is a master birder, sees soaring birds in slow motion. His hearing is even keener. In that nanosecond he was able to identify a bulge in the falcon’s upper throat, its crop or food storage reserve, indicating the results of a recent kill, perhaps a pigeon.

Hawk believed the falcon was a sign and that I had just been anointed. “I take those things seriously. You’ve just been given some credibility.”

The tension between us lifts.

Just like the birds he studies, Hawk is migratory. He travels to the Southwest in the wintertime and camps out in the desert, where he studies ferruginous hawks and golden eagles in New Mexico, and hawk migrations in the Manzano and Sandia Mountains. In the spring, he returns to the Driftless for the grand migration of birds on the Upper Mississippi.

The topography of the Driftless — specifically, the rock bluffs along the Upper Mississippi River — create ideal updrafts for bird migration. Birds follow the north-south contours of forested slopes and rest in the protected woods along the river. Hawk says that contiguous woodland makes for some of the best birding in the world.

“If you examine the region, this 260-mile Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, the forests, the woods, the bluffs and valleys, and all the associated habitats along the river, there isn’t anything that comes close.”

He pauses to listen to the drumming of a pileated woodpecker. Hawk explains, “They get the biggest dead tree they can, and hammer out a message when they’re in courtship and it’s a certain rhythm, a certain pace, with a specific duration. When they’re saying this specific thing about courtship and territory, the space between the one set of hammerings and second set of hammerings is a precise interval: thirty-eight to forty-four seconds.

“There are not many people who sit around and fidget with that, but I’m totally plugged into it.”

Until recently he lived in “a dilapidated dive,” but it was an ideal location. “I had a raptor banding station on the hill next to the house and it was right on the flight line of migrating raptors in the autumn.” A year later, he will move to the small Iowa town of Elkader on the Turkey River with his long-time friend Daryl and live in a century-old wood-frame house.

“I never thought I would live in town but Elkader has worked out,” he tells me later. “There is a turkey vulture roost just two blocks from our house, and sometimes at night the coyotes yelp and run right through town. So it is not normal town living, so to speak.”

Every night, he watches hundreds of swifts funnel into the chimney of an old factory, always at the same time, always on cue.

“It makes a good show. I’ve been bringing some of the older folks down to watch. We bring lawns chairs and sit around waiting for the parade.”

The sparsely populated Driftless region suits Hawk’s personality. It’s what has kept him here for thirty-nine years. “I’m an isolationist. I get along with people because I spend most of my time by myself. I prefer a state of loneliness. I feel more centered when I have that nearby.

“As far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to live in the Midwest it’s going to be here, smack in the middle of this region because it’s so different. It’s too bad they didn’t make it a state.”

The small research contracts he survives on keep him in the woods and on the river in pursuit of birds. “I have been chasing these birds,” he says, “slogging through swampy cathedral forests every spring, searching for clues to their secretive life in an effort to develop a better understanding of how these birds make their way in the world.”

But he is also chasing answers as to how to negotiate his way at middle age through a world that has turned upside down. When I was with Hawk I thought of the Julian Barnes quote regarding grief: “You come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.” I had never met someone who had lost so much.

Jon Stravers was born and raised in Pella, Iowa, and he studied under natural history professor Dr. John Bowles at Central College, helping with bird and mammal surveys. His first round of college ended poorly, and then he was drafted and shipped to Vietnam. He returned from his tour of duty like so many young men — adrift and anxious. Then he met Gladys Black, the Bird Lady of Iowa, and the trajectory of his life changed forever.

Gladys was from nearby Pleasantville, where her mother Jerusha taught her and her sister Ruby the vernacular names for the bounty of avian life that lived in the nearby windbreak groves. Cardinals were called red birds; loggerhead shrikes were known as butcher birds; and kingbirds were bee birds. By the age of seven, she could identify twenty-five species of birds. She was unorthodox in her dress and manner. Her house was in disrepair, and she kept her lawn wild with an array of birdfeeders, although there were usually birds inside the home, too. Under her front porch a large bull snake kept the mice at bay. Because of her crusade against pesticides, Hawk called her the Rachel Carson of Iowa. The older woman was Hawk’s mentor, his inspiration, and his lodestar. Beginning with red-tailed hawks, Gladys taught him how to properly conduct a scientific raptor survey.

Because of Gladys “I developed a more conscientious approach to hawk watching,” Hawk recalls. “I had no idea that Gladys had indeed started me on something that has continued every single spring (without fail) for thirty-five years.” They became lifelong friends. She died in 1998.

Hawk’s interest in avian studies eventually led him back to college, where Professor John Bowles convinced him that to be taken seriously in wildlife research, he needed a diploma. He took his advice and finished his degree at Central College. Because of Hawk’s passion for raptors and because of the need for data in this isolated region of the Midwest, Iowa state ecologist Dean Roosa suggested that Hawk narrow his raptor interest to red-shoulders in the floodplain forests of northeast Iowa. That was in 1976. The nesting habits of red-shouldered hawks along the knot of riparian forests in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge has more or less occupied his every waking moment ever since.

Hawk soon enlisted his young son Jon-Jon in his work. From the beginning Jon-Jon was a natural hawker. When he was two-and-a-half, his father carried him through the woods to an active red-tailed hawk nest at Red Rock Lake. Hawk remembers him pointing first at the red-tailed, and then shifting and pointing at a shagbark hickory, where the nest was. Jon-Jon and his sister Lisa spent much of their childhood outdoors and “grew up with the idea that spending a significant portion of your time in every season chasing and researching birds was a completely normal way of growing up.”

From the age of six, Jon-Jon was recording banding and nesting data for his dad in the spring at active hawk nests. Stravers senior would be fifty-five feet up in a tree calling down to Jon-Jon the number of nestlings, the ages, the condition, and the kind of prey found in the nest. At the age of eleven, Jon-Jon was pulling raptors out of mist nets in the Driftless.

“When I could manage it, I would take him out of school for a day or two so he could come up and be a part of raptor migration experience. The phrase I used was that ‘I did not want school to get in the way of his education.’”

By the age of nineteen, Jon-Jon was working for HawkWatch International on migration projects around the western United States. Jon-Jon made a modest living as a field assistant studying golden eagles at the Snake River Birds of Prey, northern goshawks in Oregon, peregrine falcons in the Grand Canyon, prairie chickens and willow flycatchers in New Mexico, and the rare grey hawk in southeastern Arizona.

Occasions of serendipity began to occur between father and son. In 1993, and then in 1994, Jon-Jon caught hawks that his father had originally banded in 1990 in the same mountains of central New Mexico.

In one of the most sparsely populated areas of the United States, the plains of St. Augustine in east central New Mexico, Hawk stopped to speak with a rancher, who asked him, “Do you have a son who does this same thing? I met a kid out here about a month ago and he talked the same way as you.”

Jon-Jon would live at those isolated sites for weeks on end. Over time, he developed his own quieter technique, different from his dad’s, and it showed when they worked on joint projects. “I’m loud,” Hawk admits. “I talk a lot and I’m slow. He was the opposite. He could stay silent in a blind and he was quick, but he also learned from other hawkers and they put together a system in which they did things beyond anything I had imagined.

“He didn’t want me to be in his blind because I was too slow, too old, too crazy, and too set in my own ways. So we’d be up in the mountains and he’d have his blind and I’d have my blind. Then in the evening when we were done we’d go and play music.

“As his understanding of raptor populations in the natural world expanded, he became the teacher and I became the student.”

All those years of slogging, sweating, and searching the steep river bluffs and dense floodplain forests led Hawk to observe and then later name one of the rarest, most secretive, moments in red-shoulder activity. For years, Hawk had noticed a sizable and noisy gathering of adult and juvenile red-shoulders in March, upon their return to the Driftless. He assumed that this led to nest building and, although he did find nests within a mile to a mile-and-a-half distance from the conclave, they were not in the immediate gathering place. “They don’t do it again later on in the year, and it’s always on the cusp of the active territories,” he says. “Imagine being inside that forest and trying to figure out what’s going on with a bird that lives there?”

Another three years went by before he figured out what these “pre-courtship communal gatherings” meant. He named it a rhouse, pronounced like “whose,” and compared it to an annual gathering of neighbors. Scientifically, this was a significant discovery in solving a mystery of a raptor ritual — a ritual rarely witnessed by anyone other than Hawk.

“I believe these gatherings function in a social sense to help keep specific territories active. If a particular mate did not survive the winter, the surviving adult might use these gatherings to locate and recruit a new partner (perhaps a bird’s idea of a dating service). In addition, during these events the youngster red-shoulders are most likely learning the routines of what it means to be an adult red-shoulder.”

Out on the Mississippi, the Midwest drought of 2012—the worst in five decades—is in full effect, and barge traffic has slowed to a trickle. The Army Corps of Engineers had dredged out a nine-foot, single lane to keep a semblance of commerce flowing.

“River’s as low as I’ve ever seen. It’s below seven feet,” Hawk says, as we motor off to the south toward some of the bluffs on the western side of the river — the Iowa side — where he has been conducting his cerulean warbler research. Looking toward a slough on the Wisconsin side Hawk points out a large bed of yellow lotus blossoms, the largest native blossom in North America.

“It’s sacred. I go in there every spring and suck the juice of a lotus. That’s one little ritual that’s very important.”

The lotus plants are an unexpected treat. I did not expect to see such beauty on the Mississippi, a river writer Lee Sandlin writes that “has been turned into a gigantic navigation canal, or the world’s largest industrial sewer. It hasn’t run wild as a river does in nature for more than a hundred years.”

As true as Sandlin’s description is, there are times when the Upper Mississippi returns to its earlier state. Hawk says the Mississippi is still “wild and wicked and I suspect it will have the last word.” During periods of high water, the Corps opens the floodgates. “In 2001 the flood gates were opened and the Upper Mississippi River was closed to all navigation for twenty-seven consecutive days—a record for our stretch of the river.”

The following spring would be Iowa’s wettest on record, resulting in a deluge of agricultural runoff into the state’s streams and tributaries and subsequently into the Mississippi. Record levels of fertilizer nitrates poured into the waterways at unprecedented levels, prompting U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Bob Hirsch to warn that this was “a real issue for human health.” Erosion of Iowa’s famous soil is washing down gullies at a rate that is more than ten times its replacement rate. All that soil ends up in the Mississippi.

But there are times on the Upper Mississippi when you gaze down upon its many channels, islands, sloughs, dramatic bluffs, and abundant bird life, from a vantage point, say, at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, or from one of the ridge trails in Wyalusing State Park above the Wisconsin River, and you can still fool yourself into imagining the river untamed and wild before the locks and dams, and the unrelenting pollution from industry and agriculture turned its waters slack and foul.

Hawk turns the outboard off and begins to play a mournful tune on a flute carved in the shape of a bird, a flute his son Jon-Jon had made. The notes echo up a side canyon on the Iowa side of the river.

The phone call that changed Hawk’s life came in the middle of the night from the Colorado Highway Patrol. Jon-Jon and his three-year-old son Jonah Chiricahua were both killed on September 2, 2007, by a suspected drunk driver in an auto accident in eastern Colorado. They were on their way to visit Hawk in northeast Iowa. Jon-Jon was thirty-three and was the musical director of the Children’s Dance Institute in Boise, Idaho.

Hawk puts the flute down and says, “There are some parts of that first night and of the entire first year that are lost to my memory due to the incredible state of shock. I do know that during the first excruciating night I managed to function enough to call Jon’s mother and my daughter Lisa. But I know that parts of my brain shut down during the long night.

“In those first moments, the first days, and at times during the first year I felt like much of what Jon-Jon and I had been doing in terms of music and bird explorations and most importantly in ceremony and spiritual awareness would all come to a close. I thought it might be the end of these shared efforts as I knew them since it was Jon-Jon’s insight and presence that turned some of these efforts, especially the music, into functioning entities and deeply emotional experiences.”

Jon-Jon had helped to connect a family of birders called the Moonbow Hawkers. Hawk says the name is based on the idea “that if you’ve ever been to the tropics, the rainforest, you can be in there during a full moon after a rain and you can get rainbows at night.”

Several months after I was anointed on the river, when we got to know each other better, I asked Hawk if the Driftless landscape had helped in getting past his grief at losing Jon-Jon and Jonah.

“Yeah, maybe the region helps, but you’ve got to have more than rocks and water to get through stuff like that.”

In 2008, at the one-year anniversary of the accident, the Treasure Valley Institute for Children’s Arts launched the Jon-Jon & Jonah Stravers Award to “an individual that best embodies a sincere love for others, a joyful and positive outlook on life and for living their life in a way that follows the path of their dreams.”

At the same occasion, there was a gathering at an old church in north Boise. Friends played music and remembered the remarkable young man who had changed their lives by his example. But it was the message that a Native American man named Chuck Greywolf delivered that resonated most strongly with Hawk. Greywolf’s message, Hawk said, was “that during first year after that passing, those who mourn could be as ridiculous and mournful and dysfunctional as they needed to be. It was at the one-year anniversary that they were all expected to come back to the living and re-enter their life. Family members had to then pick themselves up and regain their energy. They had to rebuild their own sanity, and then re-enter their life — another version of getting back on the horse and ride.

“I took this experience and Chuck Greywolf’s message to heart…the full truth. I took this event and the associated experiences and infused them into my life in a new fashion, in a new outlook, in a new effort to pick up my emotional, mental and spiritual life. I made a distinct effort to reconstruct my life.”

Greywolf’s message, along with the steadfast support of his daughter Lisa, pulled Hawk through. After the anniversary in Boise, he came back to northeast Iowa to work in his beloved Driftless. The first thing he did was finally clean up his house. That’s when he found a piece of paper that Jon-Jon had written, containing three quotes.

“The measure of mental health is the disposition to find good everywhere” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The measure of physical health is the ability to find food everywhere.” — Tom Brown

“The measure of spiritual health is the disposition to find a raptor anywhere.”

The final quote was signed, Jon-Jon.

“Now I know that it’s not just about studying the bird,” Hawk tells me. “It’s about appreciating the beauty that’s around us. Jon-Jon’s theme. He had a way of communicating based on what I had taught him, but had gone beyond. He had taken the music. He had taken the hawking. He had taken the spiritual journey into another zone.”