Friday, March 16, 2018

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

Splendid isolation?
In his 2017 book The Stranger in the Woods, journalist Michael Finkel investigates the extremely unconventional life of Christopher Thomas Knight, the man formerly known as the North Pond Hermit. In the book’s opening chapters, Knight is arrested for burglarizing the kitchen of a summer camp for disabled children. What’s unusual about his crime is that Knight is not robbing the camp’s pantry for profit but for survival. In fact, for many years Knight has lived off the takings from over a thousand such burglaries at the camp and at neighboring cabins and vacation homes in the woods around a lake in central Maine. For decades, property owners in the area have exchanged tales and rumors of a “hermit” living in the forest, and with Knight’s arrest their legends have come true. Shockingly, Knight has lived his entire adult life alone in the woods, speaking only one word (“Hi”) to another human being in 27 years.

As someone who enjoys solitude and often longs to “get away from it all,” I was fascinated by Knight’s story of life “off the grid.” Finkel examines Knight’s solitary existence and survival techniques in great detail. The hermit’s quest for isolation came at the cost of great hardship, as Knight had to survive brutally cold Maine winters while never even building a fire for fear of being discovered. Yet, amazingly, during all that time he never got sick or suffered a serious injury. Knight lived surprisingly close to civilization, yet avoided human contact through sheer relentless willpower. Finkel delves into the hermit’s mind and analyzes his unique code of ethics, which are loosely based on a foundation of ancient Stoicism. Knight felt guilty for every robbery he committed, and there were certain illegal and unethical lines he would not cross. Finkel interviews members of the local community for their responses to the hermit and his crimes. Their reactions run the gamut from disbelief to sympathy to rage.

Finkel also goes beyond Knight’s story to examine the human need for solitude and its naturally beneficial effects. He looks at the history of hermithood and reveals that an astounding number of people around the world today are living in some degree of hermitude, often for religious reasons. Finkel digs into Knight’s past to try to determine what would have driven this man to live his life in such a way. One can’t help but draw parallels between Knight and Christopher McCandless, the subject of John Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild and another social iconoclast who lived on his own terms. (If you liked one of these books, you’ll surely like the other.) However, while one can empathize with McCandless’s wanderlust and envy his nomadic adventures, it would be difficult to covet Knight’s experience of spending almost three decades in the same camp, often through undoubtedly miserable conditions. Knight’s obstinate endurance and unflinching devotion to his odd personal convictions is so far outside the realm of conventional reason that he makes for a delightfully unfathomable enigma. I wouldn’t want to live Knight’s life, but I’m glad there’s someone out there who did.

Finkel’s writing grabs you from page one and doesn’t let go. If I had two and a half hours of uninterrupted reading time, I would have gladly finished this book in one sitting. Only in the book’s last few chapters does enthusiasm begin to flag a bit as Finkel discusses Knight’s readjustment to society. It starts to get a little creepy at that point, not only because of Knight’s asocial behavior but also because of the way Finkel stalks the poor guy. Nevertheless, The Stranger in the Woods is a captivatingly addictive, profoundly moving, and memorably thought-provoking book.
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