This book makes one wonder about what we call civilization and a “normal” social life or, for that matter, what leaving it all behind might mean.
“It is not good that the man should be alone.” That bit of early scriptural wisdom shows up about three quarters of the way through The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. That isn’t extraordinarily surprising, yet the story of Christopher Knight certainly is.
For reasons that remain somewhat unclear to this day, in 1986 Knight left his apartment near Boston, drove deep into the wilds of Maine, abandoned his vehicle and began searching for a suitable home away from any and all of his fellow human beings.
Except for one fleeting greeting, he did not speak for the next 27 years. Eventually he found a permanent retreat: a spot in the middle of the “Jarsey,” Maine talk for an almost impenetrable clumping of thick ground vegetation and closely spaced trees. Additionally his home away from humanity was situated within a Stonehenge-like aggregation of boulders with a hidden entryway.
So how did he survive? Certainly not on the north woods equivalent of locusts and honey. As is apparent from the very first chapter of Stranger in the Woods, Knight was no stranger to criminal activity. In fact he may well have set a record for number of break and enter burglaries committed without being apprehended. Over the years Knight regularly stole foodstuffs, batteries, blankets, propane tanks, items of clothing, hundreds of books and a number of video games. All of these thefts were visited upon a campground facility for disabled children and a community of seasonal cottages that clustered around two ponds in Maine’s resort region. The campground and the cottages were located remarkably close to his hermit’s lair.
Bob Dylan once opined that “But to live outside the law, you must be honest.” Knight was true at least to his own criminal code. Working exclusively at night, he scrupulously avoided buildings that showed any sign of occupation, taking pains to avoid confrontation of any kind. The video games he stole were ones that showed (at least in his mind) signs of neglect or obsolescence. He attempted to repair any signs of damage that his intrusions necessitated. When he was caught he expressed regret and something like guilt that his survival had depended on this activity.
Once he was forced to rejoin civilization his silence on these matters was almost as profound as the mute existence he’d led alone in the woods. But for the efforts of author Michael Finkel, this story may only have found its way into a Wikipedia article or an arresting account in a popular magazine. Of all the journalists intrigued by the tale, Finkel persisted most successfully in getting Knight to open up about his experiences and his motivations.
Finkel is engaging and thorough when he delves into the phenomenon of the hermit and its history and psychological and spiritual underpinnings. Along the way we are treated to accounts of Anchorite saints and the musings of spiritual thinkers like Lao Tzu and Thomas Merton.
Finkel explores Knight’s family background as well, with only a modicum of insight extracted from his stalwart, taciturn and self-reliant kinfolk. Psychological professionals who were consulted on the case were about equally divided as to whether this is an example of schizoid personality disorder or a form of autism. Knight counters with very rare, rhapsodic descriptions of a quiet life lived in harmony with nature, mostly free from care.
This book makes one wonder about what we call civilization and a “normal” social life or, for that matter, what leaving it all behind might mean. The poet Robert Bly once confided that he lived a solitary existence in New York City in his younger years, not speaking to another human for a month or so at a time. By his own account: “Last month I read some of the journals I kept during those three years. I grew alarmed, because I could see myself losing the common language that we, as humans, have. Word after word had disappeared into some huge hole.” Christopher Knight left no written account of his years alone; perhaps the huge hole he encountered swallowed up his life.