Giving hermits a bad name

The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel, Simon & Schuster

One day in the 1980s a young man fed up with the modern world abandons his car by the side of the road and disappears into the woods of the northeast United States, where he remains for the next 30 years, living in isolation in a makeshift campsite.

Christopher Knight, described as the last true hermit (a problematic term as becomes evident), sustains himself by breaking into nearby holiday cabins and thieving food and clothing, sparking a decades-long investigation. The Stranger in the Woods opens with the heart-racing account of his arrest by a policeman increasingly frustrated by Knight’s panther-like elusiveness. Before his entry into the woods Knight worked as a security alarm installer, and this knowledge enables him to elude detection. Upon his eventual arrest he becomes something of a celebrity, the subject of marriage proposals and songs. Michael Finkel finds Knight in jail, from where this intriguing story unfolds. (Knight is eventually released to perform community service.)

The back cover of Michael Finkel’s book suggests that ‘occasionally [Knight] would have to venture to holiday cabins in the dead of night to pilfer a bit of food’, but this is a gross understatement. Actually he did this regularly, also stealing clothes, bedding, reading material and, crucially, gas canisters for his camp stove. Upon his arrest, he replied that virtually everything he ‘owned’ was stolen. Rainwater was the only provision he didn’t steal. He didn’t grow or hunt any of his food.

Finkel suggests Knight’s ‘back was fully turned to the world’, but Knight did not live in the wilderness. He lived, his campsite camouflaged in the forest, within three minutes’ walk of civilisation (a form of it, anyway), and even stole a flat screen TV which he powered with (stolen) car batteries. He read (stolen) books and magazines and listened to a (stolen) radio. Like the Japanese individuals whom Finkel mentions and who stay shut in their rooms, interacting with the world only via the internet, Knight simply turns his back on face-to-face interactions with living, breathing people. He describes himself as ‘kind of an isolationist’.

Finkel ruminates on how a thousand years ago we lived in small communities, in the bush, in a quiet environment, and opines, ‘This is who we truly are’, forgetting for the moment that Knight can only survive in his patch of peace and quiet with the modern conveniences of a gas stove, tents, sleeping bags, warm clothing and manufactured, long-life food. Knight does, however, show extraordinary tenacity and survival skills, many learnt on the job, because, Finkel explains, Knight lacked any training in bush survival before going bush. To survive the harsh Maine winters Knight rose at 2am, did exercises to stop freezing and thawed out precious drinking water on his camp stove.

Hermits, typically, are rather high-minded about what they do, and though living in isolation, they tend to make some communication to the world, particularly in a sage-like capacity. Knight himself, though, is puzzled by the ‘hermit’ label, preferring to think of himself as normal. He makes no attempt at manifestos or communicating his experience to the world. It is as if he made an impulsive decision and then, increasingly, finds it impossible to go back. Despite his thieving, of which he is ashamed, he has principles – he doesn’t steal expensive or obviously sentimental stuff, and he is a polite house-breaker, re-sealing doors and windows. He is not uninformed about the modern world and is a devourer of books, discerning in his reading unless, Knight says, the alternative is nothing to read. He admires Socrates for his recommendation of hermiticism, but detests that great populariser of back-to-nature principles, Thoreau (above), because, as Knight sees it, Thoreau only pretended to be a hermit, and still went to town on the weekends for dinner parties. This is somewhat ironic, considering Knight’s own lifestyle.

Knight describes Finkel as his Boswell, but reading between the lines, Finkel is an annoying journo who is after the major scoop and who is constantly stepping over the line from familiarity to intrusiveness, despite knowing that Knight and his family value privacy. But Finkel is intrigued in, as well as full of admiration for, someone so determined to shun society. Locals are not so forgiving. Some hate Knight for ruining their idyllic peace and quiet. Others see him as a minor inconvenience. The last word should go to the online hermit community (yes, there is such a thing), who, after much deliberation, decide that Knight is not a true hermit, but a thief who gives hermits a bad name.

 

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