Photo by Alim Ali

Remembering Caras E Esta (Christopher Hunt)

Christopher Robin Hunt, my father, was a complicated, larger than life figure. He died on August 18, 2018, in Pai, Thailand, of complications from cancer and chronic lung disease.

He chose to go by the name Caras E Esta for the last decade or so of his life, so I will call him Caras. I’ll explain the origin of that name plus some other interesting mysteries in these reflections on his life and his death.

Everything Caras did, he did bigly. When he was happy, he was happy bigly. When he raged, he raged bigly. When he philosophized, he philosophized bigly. When he failed, he failed bigly. When he contradicted himself, he contradicted bigly.

There was a lot of trying in his life, some successes along the way, even more talking (a veritable torrent of talking), and some real impacts in the world that flowed from all that trying and all that talking.

But, first, let’s talk about his birth name. He was born Christopher Robin Hadley, in 1945 (yes, I’ll talk about his age below, since that was an ongoing controversy throughout his life), in Devon, England. His birth name had no relationship, as far as I know, to that other more famous Christopher Robin — of Winnie the Pooh fame. In fact, Caras didn’t use his middle name at all and I didn’t know until a few years before his death that he even had a middle name.

Caras’s birth certificate.

He was adopted as a baby, by Ernest and Dorothy Hunt, and his name was changed to Christopher Robin Hunt. He shortened that to Chris Hunt for much of his life, but also went by Chris Potter for a while when he was actually a potter, with a studio in Cornwall, England. But toward the end of his life he changed that to Caras E Esta, what he claimed had always been his true name.

His time as a potter was one of a very few occasions when he attempted to earn a living through “normal” means. He was, by all accounts, an amazing potter, with a natural ability to produce beautiful and useful pots as well as clay sculptures. He was also a great visual artist, with a truly natural skill. I’ve seen some of his work over the years and it was impressive. But he didn’t have the heart, dedication or desire to stick with the pottery vocation for long and, after a couple of years at Louisa Pottery in Cornwall, England, he and my mother, Eve, his wife at the time, pulled up the roots of their little family of four (my brother and I were toddlers at that time, but my sister was not yet with us) and buggered off to India for an extended journey.

This journey to the East in the early 1970s was iconic of what he saw as his role in prompting, or at least being part of, broad cultural transformations. While he was never well-known as a speaker or personality, at least not in the cultural record, he was part of many large cultural trends on the ground, speaking, prodding, irritating, inspiring.

He was, in a way, an everyman version of Alan Watts. Not as educated or as cultured as Watts. Not as good at public speaking or telling a yarn. But Caras’s voice had a similar charm as Watts — and they both loved to hear the sound of their own voice, very much. They were also both lifelong xenophiles in that they loved the different, the new, the strange, the foreign.

Caras talked to anyone and everyone. I’ve never met anyone even remotely as gregarious with strangers as my dad was. He loved to turn people on to new ideas and new ways of thinking. He was kind of a modern-day traveling philosopher. It was all about planting seeds for him. He knew that most people he talked at would dismiss him as some crazy guy with long hair, bad teeth and weird clothing. But he also knew that enough people would be impacted by the little seeds that he planted in the soil of their minds that his efforts would be worthwhile.

He was driven to be a change agent for most of his life. The direction of his change agent efforts was not always very clear or very practical, so it seemed to me, but he clearly was driven to make the effort. It’s impossible to know what his impact was over the course of his long life, but we do know that he planted a large number of little seeds, and many of those seeds are still growing.

So, who was Caras E Esta? He saw himself first and foremost as a type of steward of the planet and of humankind’s place on this planet. This went far beyond what is known today as environmentalism. His type of stewardship was a concern for the large-scale trends of human activities, including our particularly rapacious variety of capitalism around the world today, as well as a desire to see art and beauty become more mainstream values and pursuits, more central to the human condition.

He was, however, a pretty bad environmentalist. One of our more recent fights (there were many over the years) was about what he was doing personally to reduce his carbon footprint. He got angry with my questioning because he realized that the answer was “not too much.” As I mentioned, he was good at contradicting himself. Another way of saying this is that his aspirations and good intentions exceeded his abilities.

One of his largest contradictions was, however, an issue we debated many times. He was a passionate advocate for personal growth and empowerment, and for the rights of the downtrodden, animals, and the little guy, but he also had a strange affection for dictators and patriarchy. He was a big fan of Xi Jingping and authoritarian China. Ditto with Napoleon and 19th Century France, and ditto with Thailand’s ruling junta that took power in a 2014 coup and has still not held a democratic election yet (he lived in Thailand the last few years of his life).

I never understood this glaring contradiction but I think it grew from his often-frustrated desires to be more respected as an authority figure himself and a related fondness for age- and wisdom-based patriarchy. Sometimes all he had was his age, so he played that card up.

One of the sad facts of human relations is that most power stems from patronage and commerce-based networks — that is, it’s mostly about money at just about every level of human relations. And that was a game he was never good at playing, even when he came into some money later in life through his inheritance from his father.

Pops was at times a great story teller. And it was hard to know with him what stories were true, embellished or totally made up. He would never admit to completely fabricating something but I know with some certainty that some things he told people were just that: fabrications. Many other stories he liked to tell were more in the gray area of “embellished truth” — perhaps.

One of the more interesting stories he liked to tell people was where his name came from — his true name, as he called it: Caras E Esta. It means “keeper of the west wind” and the name is a ceremonial name used for one of a council of seven guardians/stewards in an ancient Cornish pre-druidic order known as the Kierna Kai. He had been slowly inducted into this group, over the course of a number of years by various different people, as they gently and steadily reminded him of who he really was.

This extended dialogue over the years, with different but strangely familiar strangers, led him to learn the Kierna Kai language, which he appeared to speak fluently (I heard him speak it on a few occasions and it seemed pretty convincing), as well as learning who he was as a figure in the Kierna Kai order. He claimed the language was related to the Basque language, which is itself an odd outlier in European languages because it’s not an Indo-European language (it’s much older, apparently).

So the process of becoming a Kierna Kai mage is quite similar to the process of Tibetan Buddhists finding a new Lama after the death of the previous one.

Caras was, once he came into his new identity as the keeper of the west wind, at the center of the Kierna Kai council of seven, and he had, during his long life, been part of the process of finding replacement Kierna Kai at least five times. He claimed that he had the option to cultivate various magical powers as part of being a Kierna Kai mage, including immortality, changing weather, and various kinds of divination. In our conversations about this interesting history, I never asked him to elaborate on or to demonstrate these powers, but I did ask him if he’d used these alleged powers to extend his own life. He told me that he hadn’t because he didn’t want to lose everyone he cared about as his life extended onward and others continued to age.

There is no public record on the Kierna Kai, as far as I’m aware (let me know if you know anything) and Caras claimed the order had been intentionally secretive for most of its existence, going back to the time of the Romans in England and even earlier. The Romans were extremely brutal in stamping out any kind of dissent and the Kierna Kai were active in fighting these oppressors. This lack of a record was pretty convenient, of course, in terms of allowing him to tell this story with little fear of being called out by outside fact checking.

The mage in a mustard field near Salisbury, England.

I’m only scratching the surface here, but my impressions on being told different parts of this story over the last decade is that it was actually plausible and maybe even true, once you allow yourself a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. But the strong weight of the evidence suggests that he probably made it all up. I’m a hard-nosed kind of guy, so this kind of thing is a big pill for me to swallow personally.

At some point, we have to ask ourselves, however, who cares if it was made up? It was a great story.

The plot thickens further. Part of this story related to his age, which was an ongoing mystery in our family and to his friends for much of his life. I’ve already spilled the beans above on his age: he was 73 when he died, not a man in his 90s as he often told people he was. But that isn’t the end of the story. No, it gets even more interesting.

A few years ago, soon after he learned that he had stage four kidney cancer and probably not long left to live, I asked him to come clean and tell me how old he was. My mom had always insisted that he was a year older than her (making him 73 when he died), but Caras had always insisted he was at least a decade older than her. It was one of those weird family things that never got resolved because it wasn’t that important to resolve the controversy, but it kind of festered without finding resolution.

He told me, when I pressed him at his home at the time in Reading, England, that it was very strange: his physical body was born in 1945 but he had memories going back quite a bit earlier, to an apparent birth date of 1922. He had detailed memories, some of which he told me, of being a young guy in pre-World War II England, traveling to Africa before the war started, eventually returning to England and then serving in the British Army in India and Burma, fighting the Japanese. After the war ended, he went to New York and, shortly afterwards, those memories ended and elided into his young boy self in England.

As he told me these details, none of the telltale signs of embellishment or tall tales were evident. Given my lifelong efforts to tell when people are telling the truth or lying he surely seemed to be telling the truth. He added that he didn’t even believe in reincarnation or any continuation after bodily death (and nor do I), so it was really hard for him to make sense of any of this.

So how old was he? Well, his body was clearly 73 but his mind and self may have been — if we accept at all this rather incredible and unusual story — substantially older.

He had massive energy and a lust for life. Granted, his energy was aided for most of his waking hours with large amounts of caffeine and nicotine, but he used what he felt was necessary to function at the level needed. When he was younger he used to party with the best of them, as any self-respecting hippy who lived through the 60s and 70s would have done.

I didn’t know that he used any hard drugs, but cocaine and heroin were found in his system after he died. He was dealing with severe pain throughout his body, from a ton of cancer-related failings, and serious lung and breathing problems, with regular panic attacks induced by bad breathing, so self-medication was, in his mind, imperative.

It’s really not clear whether these drugs killed him or if it was simply his time anyway. Maybe they extended his life? We can’t know. But I’ve learned since he died that he liked on occasion to indulge in harder drugs, apparently finding toward the end of his life that prescription drugs weren’t enough.

I also knew that he had dealt some drugs for much of his life, as a small source of revenue. More of a favor to people than as a real source of income — or so he said to me.

This got me thinking. Were wizards and shamans always “drug dealers”? Do these activities go hand in hand? I’m no expert in shamanism but it seems likely that a significant part of the role that traditional shamans and “wizards” performed in pre-technological societies was what the more conscientious drug dealers and doctors try to achieve today: help with personal chemistry, moods, spiritual advancement, and overall life satisfaction. And this help may often involve giving or selling various substances that we now call chemicals or drugs, but were in past eras called sacraments, spells, magic.

I don’t think my dad dealt much more than weed during most of his life and, by all accounts, he was a pretty bad drug dealer because he was pretty broke for most of his life (at least the 47 years that I knew him).

My father was a bad father. He had a number of kids, more perhaps than I even know about. Of all his kids I was the only one who had any significant role in his life over the last couple of decades. He had estranged the rest of them during that time, for various reasons. I don’t know the full story as to why my two siblings decided to avoid him. But I do know that the two main duties of a father to his kids — to be a provider and to be present — were not things that my father was good at.

Caras, my brother and I circa 1986 in California

He was a rolling stone his entire life, always bouncing around here and there, by choice or necessity. He never had a “real job” or a steady source of income, so my siblings and I grew up on the dole in England. We all turned out generally okay, despite a very humble upbringing, taking advantage of loans and grants in the U.S. (where we all moved to when we were kids) to get college degrees and even graduate degrees, with decent middle class lifestyles.

Caras basically abandoned his wife and us kids in England when we were all quite young, and this “original sin,” combined with his often-difficult personality, led my siblings to give up on him. I had enough in common with him, in terms of my lifelong love of philosophy and change-making in the world, that I maintained a close relationship with him even though I too found him difficult to be around for very long.

In short, Caras was, like a lot of highly intelligent but troubled men, a rather conflicted character. A riddle wrapped in a conundrum hidden inside a paradox.

Dad, Mum and I in Prague in 2016.

This duality — the enigmatic mage or the more pedestrian drug-dealing and loose-with-the-truth deadbeat dad hippy — reminds me of Yann Martel’s notion of “the better story” in his amazing novel Life of Pi. In that book he describes a fantastical tale of a boy shipwrecked in a small lifeboat with a tiger and some other animals — until the tiger kills all the other animals. Various adventures and insights follow until eventually the boy is rescued, relatively unharmed.

As the boy recovers in a hospital he is questioned about “what really happened” and the reader learns a second and very different version of events as the boy talks to the authorities: the tiger and other animals were in fact various people from the ship, with all but the “tiger” (the ship’s chef) being killed and eaten during the course of several months at sea. The boy survived, barely, but was obviously deeply scarred by his experience.

On finishing his second version of what happened, the boy asks them “what is the better story, the first version or the second?”

With my papa, maybe we’re left with the better story of seeing him as a highly flawed but at times noble mage and shaman. But maybe we can let this particular duality rest without resolution, and, instead, appreciate that humans are complicated and often act against their better aspirations.

Regardless of how we view him, it is a fact that Caras touched many hearts and minds, and many still alive miss him — flaws and all. His seeds are still growing.