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The Stranger In the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

January 28, 2018

 

stranger_in_the_woods

In 1986, at age 20, Christopher Knight parked his car at the side of the road in rural Maine and walked off into the woods. He lived there alone for 27 years. In that time, he spoke one word—“hi”— to another human, a passing hiker.

In 2013, Knight was arrested while breaking into a kitchen at a camp for boys. He was returned to civilization. “Capturing Knight was the human equivalent of netting a giant squid,” Finkel muses. As far as we know, Knight spent more time alone than anyone else in the history of the world.

After his arrest, Knight’s story caught Finkel’s eye and he reached out to Knight with letters, eventually interviews. Here, he attempts to illuminate Knight’s mysterious character. He examines the history of hermits and the notion of solitude. In a world where few people go more than a few hours without interacting with others, what would make one want to be alone for so long, and what does it take to bear that kind of loneliness? What does it do to a person?

Knight had a camp, tucked in a dense stand of trees behind some large glacial boulders. Amazingly, he was within walking distance of cabins and vacation homes around North Pond in central Maine. But his camp was so well hidden that other than the hiker, he only had one other encounter, this one with a fisherman to whom he said nothing.

During his time in the woods, he committed over 1000 burglaries of nearby homes, pilfering them for food and supplies. Although nobody knew who was doing it, people began to refer to him as the “North Pond Hermit.” Some of the residents left food out for him (though he never took any). Others, not surprisingly, found the notion of a strange man living in the woods and randomly breaking into homes to be terrifying. Knight was upset when he found out that his crimes caused people fear, though it should have been obvious. Still, he meant no harm to anyone.

When I was young, I was enchanted by The Boxcar Children. Like most boys, I built forts in the woods, had fantasies of living a self-reliant life. Maybe we all have a little of that in us—a romantic notion of escaping the hustle of everyday life and living off the grid. Of course, very few of us actually do it. Certainly not for a quarter century.

“The act had elements of a suicide, except he didn’t kill himself,” Finkel says. Knight’s vocal chords atrophied from lack of use. He had trouble speaking, but in slow, stunted sentences he describes how the dividing line between himself and the forest dissolved, how he fell into a kind of communion with nature. He decries elements of society, finds it ironic that spending your life working in a cubicle, trading your time and stress for money is considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods, observing the trees is considered disturbed. That said, to the key question of why he did what he did, Knight seemed to find it as puzzling as everyone else. He’d obviously given it much thought but all he could say about it was, “It’s a mystery.”

What I loved about this book were the angles Finkel came at it, trying to solve that basic riddle of why. He looked at the great writers on solitude—writers like Annie Dillard, Michael de Montaigne, Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton (who beautifully wrote, “Nothing can be expressed about solitude that has not been better expressed by sound of the wind in the pine trees.”). He looks at other similar cases, such as Christopher McCandless, who disappeared into the Alaskan bush as told in Jon Krakauer’s excellent Into the Wild.

Finkel examines the neuroscience of silence, of what it does to the mind, to the senses. He looks at Knight’s family and considers Asperger Syndrome and other medical conditions as possible explanations. And he considers the history of solitude, from its religious significance—Jesus in the wilderness, Buddha under the tree—to the more trivial. (In 18th Century England, it became fashionable for wealthy land owners to have a hermit on their estate. Ornamental hermits, they were called. Wanted ads appeared everywhere. The contracts were typically for seven years, the pay was good and included a meal a day. Hundreds of hermits were hired.)

But what I found most interesting was Knight’s complicated character. It’s hard to say what he meant by his act of departure. Was it an act of protest? A mental glitch? A moment of enlightenment? He criticizes society’s need for stuff, the need to mesmerize ourselves with our screens. Yet he lived off society. He wasn’t living off the land unless you count vacation homes as part of the land. He stole food, radios, batteries and other supplies, so it’s difficult to concede him any moral high ground or hold him up as some example of a principled life. He just was. Alone. Without need for justification. How many of us do the things we do because of the pressures and expectations of society? Cut the connection to those pressures and what happens? Does one lose purpose? Find nirvana? It’s an important question, and though Knight shows no investment in the answer, he is a fascinating human experiment. And it makes for a fantastic book.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Finkel permalink
    January 29, 2018 2:15 pm

    Thank you for this very kind review. I’m so pleased that the story of Christopher Knight really seemed to resonate with you. — Mike

    • January 29, 2018 4:04 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Michael. Awesome to have you pop in. The book is fantastic. I thought it would be interesting, but I found it really moving too.

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