The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
You might remember recent and not-so-long-ago news about Christopher Knight, a man whose arrest revealed that he had been living, illegally, on someone's land in North Pond, Maine for 27 years in a camp of his own construction, no interaction with the outside world beyond a 'hi' to another hiker early on. One day, he simply drove his Brat into the middle of the woods until it ran out of gas, grabbed his tent and sleeping bag, and wandered into the woods. There he lived, as the mythical hermit of North Point, burglarizing around 40 homes nearby more than 1,000 times to maintain his food and supply storage through especially brutal winters. He did not have a conversation during this time. He did not touch anyone. He had never seen the Internet, or a smartphone. And, in this way, he was perhaps one of the most pure hermits in known history (though other hermits argue his passive violence done through theft does not make him a true hermit). My favorite fact: He never caught a cold, because you need to be in contact with others to get sick.
How do I know all of this about Knight? I read Michael Finkel's book, A Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. I had no idea what to expect, but I found myself, for the most part, enchanted with this outlier in society, with this man who did what many of us wish for on occasion - to walk away from society as we know it and surround ourselves in nature. His approach is a funny one though, in living on the fringe of society, never interacting with it beyond the books and old video games he stole, while still benefitting from society, relying on the propane gas and sugary foods and beverages people left in their summer homes. I cannot help but worry for his liver and his teeth after almost three decades of cheap alcohol mixes and boxed and packaged, processed foods.
But that he managed to live this way, in relatively good health, is truly awe-inspiring. The media made him an outlier for his isolation, but Finkel, through his writing, made him approachable and understandable. In so many ways, I can relate to Knight.
In addition to the not-getting-sick fact, I was also drawn into the discourse on the diagnoses psychologists, media and Maine neighbors tried to apply afterward. Depression, Asperger's Syndrome, schizoid personality disorder. These 'disabilities' rear their heads only in social contexts. Those diagnosed are seen as social anomalies. But, when you remove others, there is nothing unusual about these people. The same goes for Knight - he simply did not fall into society's current construct. No wonder some hailed him for his boldness in doing what the rest of us find impossible to do in today's world: to disconnect, to be free and to embrace aloneness.
As the story goes, of course, he was eventually found. He was imprisoned for seven months in 2013, and, ultimately, returned to his childhood home. While it seems he quite seriously contemplated death, he has been integrating. Well, as much integration as is required for someone who still seeks solitude. Ironically, I am not sure if this book will give him that, or if it will instead make others more interested in seeking him out (as hermits have regularly been considered guides or prophets). We often want to put into writing and share what is unusual, what is remarkable. But here is a man that wished for none of it. So, while I quite enjoyed this book, I have no idea whether or not it should have been written in the first place.