Civilization and its Discontent: Reviewing Michael Finkel’s 2017, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

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            …[L]ocals were enraged by Knight’s actions.  The actual items he stole might be minor, but he also took people’s peace of mind.  Their sense of security.  Some said they were afraid to sleep in their own cabins, afraid for decades.

            ‘I felt violated, over and over again,’ said Debbie Baker, who has owned a place on North Pond with her husband for more than twenty years.  ‘I lost count how many times he broke in.’ Her two sons, when they were young, were terrified of the Hermit.  They had nightmares about him.

So frequently, in our modernized and “progressive” society, we romanticize the escape into the wild; and while it’s true that people have been retreating to nature for its restorative powers since the beginning of time—Jesus, Buddha, Gilgamesh, St. Anthony—it was really the literature of the Romantic period—Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge – that began to codify the retreat into Nature as a literary, as well as a physical, aesthetic.  Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”, and Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, who found the French Alps “sublime and magnificent”, and whose “scenes afforded [him] the greatest consolation that [he] was capable of receiving” are but two examples.  In the American tradition those carrying the torch of the Romantics begin with Emerson, Thoreau and Muir.  Thoreau, who famously moved to the woods because he wanted to suck all the marrow out of life, Emerson’s “transparent eye-ball” and Muir’s near death experiences in a Sequoia and on a glacier all attempt to accomplish the same goal: to find Life by obliterating ego, to find one’s self by seeking Nature.   So, what happens when someone seeks out Nature not to return?  Michael Finkel’s telling of Christopher Knight’s story, in his book The Stranger in the Woods, explores that question.

In 1986, Christopher Knight quit his job, cashed his final paycheck, got in his Subaru Brat and headed south to Florida; he turned around and drove north all the way to central Maine, down one dirt road, then another, until the car could no longer navigate the path.  He drove his car as far into the woods as the trail would take him, threw his keys in the center console, got out and started walking.  He never looked back.

For almost three decades Knight lived virtually unknown in solitude.  On a body of water called North Pond, just about smack in the middle of the state, he constructed an inconspicuous camp where he remained, hardly ever leaving except to steal supplies and food.  He talked to virtually no one in nearly a quarter century, save a lone hiker and some fisherman, all of whom came upon him accidentally over the course of his tenure in the wild.  Outside of those encounters, he never spoke.  He listened to the radio, he read, he meditated—if meditation is sitting quietly and simply being—and he came face to face with death; or as he called it, “the Lady of the Woods”.  He also committed approximately 1,000 instances of breaking and entering and petty theft.  It was how he survived.  In so doing, he inhabited a curious space between shunning civilization completely, and being totally dependent on it for survival.

This book should be on your shelf for any number of reasons, but one of them is that this book is an incredibly quick read.  You won’t need days, weeks or months to finish it.  I think it took me a total of six hours, give or take, to digest this, and I don’t really consider myself a speedy reader; in fact, I’m still trudging, after several months, through Michener’s Alaska: I love it, but it’s tedious.  Finkel’s book moves with rapidity for two reasons: first, it’s fascinating.   How does someone endure nearly thirty years in a tent through twenty-seven New England winters?  Additionally, he does this without so much as hardly talking to or touching another human being.  He doesn’t take months to prepare for this ordeal, or perhaps years, like Chris McCandless from John Krakauer’s Into the Wild, nor does he take supplies.  He had neither a map, nor compass nor food.  Just himselfAnd he wasn’t looking to find himself or some deeper meaning in life like Cheryl Strayed: he was looking to get lost.  Secondly, Finkel’s prose is straightforward and lacks the density of academic writing.  After all, Finkel’s a journalist and not an academic.  He’s much more of a story teller than a story analyst.  So, readers will find themselves both engrossed with and gratified by the book’s content and pace.

Readers will also identify with Finkel’s admiration for Knight.  Imagine living not just alone in the woods, but also in a camp, a tent (not a cabin or shack for shelter), cooking over a propane stove or grill, shitting in a hole in the ground for twenty-seven years.  (Knight lived in constant fear of being caught, and so never once started a fire.  Not even for warmth.  Living through almost thirty… thirty! Maine winters.)  Finkel writes with what I interpret as a sense of bewilderment at the length of Knight’s tenure, his ability to survive, and the absoluteness of his solitude:

None of these hermits remained as secluded as long as Knight did, at least not without significant help from assistants, or without being corralled into a monastery or convent, which is what happened to the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  There might have existed—or it’s possible, currently exist—hermits more completely hidden than Knight, but if so, they have never been found.  Capturing Knight was the human equivalent of netting a giant squid.  His seclusion was not pure, he was a thief, but he persisted for twenty-seven years while speaking a total of one word and never touching anyone else.  Christopher Knight, you could argue, is the most solitary person in all of human history.

It may also be hard for readers not to see some chutzpa in Knight’s ability to withstand incredibly difficult ordeals: ‘Once you get below negative twenty, you purposely don’t think.  It’s like there’s no atheists in a foxhole.  Same with negative twenty.  That’s when you do have religion.  You do pray.  You pray for warmth.’ It may be true that science has no definitive answer for precisely what temperature hypothermia begins to set in, but it must be very close at negative twenty.  (As a side note, Outside Podcast has an amazing episode on the science of what it’s like to freeze to death, and it’s fascinating.)  In some respects, Knight’s actions are near super-human, perhaps even heroic.

On the other hand, Finkel does not gloss over the more unsavory aspects of this story: the fact the Knight was a terror to the local population of North Pond.  Debbie Baker, one of the person’s interviewed for Finkel’s story and quoted at the top of this piece, perfectly highlights the fact that this is not some romantic narrative about one seeking refuge from the monstrousness of civilization.  Rather, Knight was the horror.  To Baker’s children Knight was the monster in the closet and under the bed, the boogeyman, the thing that goes bump in the night and every other unsavory beast that children dream up in the deep dark of their minds—except he was real.  Knight had become the reason children need night lights.  Knight himself acknowledged as much after his arrest in 2013.  In speaking to Finkel from prison he said,

There’s no justification for my stealing … And I don’t want people trying to justify my bad behavior in an attempt to sully what they admire in me.  Take the whole package, good and bad.  Judge me on that.  Don’t cherry pick.  Don’t make excuses for me.

This distinguishes Knight from those who seek either refuge or enlightenment in solitude, or both.  Make a plan, take only what you need, leave only footsteps. Thoreau (for whom Knight had no end of loathing) came into town regularly, if only to socialize, and while it’s true that it’s been over 150 years since he set up shop at Walden Pond, all that’s left is the foundation of his “cottage”: McCandless had a plan and many people to help him along the way, and all did so willingly: Bill Bryson uses his A Walk in the Woods as an opportunity to learn and teach about the ecology of the East coast and the Appalachian Trail: Wendell Berry talks about the restorative power of crossing “into the woods”.  Yet, each of these figures operates with the understanding, at least tacitly, that without civilization such forays into the wild would not be possible.  Moreover, each did so without directly causing harm to other humans, or presumably, the environment.

Knight was different.  Not only was he a terror to the local population, but he also left a veritable dump behind: a good deal of empty propane containers buried in the ground: twenty-seven years worth of shit—which, contrary to what you might think, doesn’t decompose when simply buried: hundreds of magazines: countless food wrappers.  Additionally, Knight wanted to reap the reward without sewing the seed.  Live off the fat of the land without in any way contributing to it.  All this even though a number of North Pond residents offered, by way of notes on doorsteps, to leave him whatever he needed or desired so long as he didn’t break in again.  In fact, a hermit named Meng-Hu, who runs Hermitary.com, a website for the hermit community—yes, that’s a thing—noted exactly this on his website:

‘The idea of a hermit who steals for a living confirms the worst stereotype of the “eremite as parasite” … ‘No historical hermit, especially those motivated by a spiritual sense, but also wilderness hermits, has ever had the slightest motive to encroach upon anybody’s belongings—be that mind, body, time, space, or goods’.

Readers may be conflicted regarding this hard-line stance; because while we do not condone or excuse such behavior, we may also see something of the stoic in Knight’s existence.  Personally, I view Knight not so much as being lazy or as a parasite, but as willing to go to any lengths to make his time his own.  To have no master but himself.  In his own words, “You’re just there.  You are”. 

All in all, Finkel’s narrative stands as a great piece of investigative journalism combined with masterful storytelling. From the background on Knight’s family, to the pace at which the text moves, to the inner-workings of the mind of a man who risked everything, even his own life in those Maine winters, not to have anything to do with society, readers will find it difficult to put this book down, and chances are they’ll be huddled over this one by lamp-light into the wee hours.

Get out there!

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