There have always been people who don't want to live with the rest of us. If you think about it objectively, it makes sense: One of human beings' strengths — and surely the key to the wildly divergent types of culture we create — is that we have varying life experiences. So isn't it natural that for some, living solo and avoiding social situations would be their preference?
Yet throughout history, people who prefer time alone have been seen as "... subversive to obedience and stability," wrote Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Italian priest who was a loner himself. Because human beings are social animals (another of our species' strengths), those who aren't people-oriented are seen as different. And if you know anything at all about human history, you know those who think differently — whether the subject is medicine and scientific ideas, spiritual ideas, gender roles, or even basic stuff like wearing a skirt vs. pants — get punished.
But still, those independent souls keep popping up, some hurt by those who find them suspicious, others due to terrible self-inflicted ends, like Chris McCandless from "Into the Wild." But plenty survive — and keep surviving. They're out there. Others, like Christopher Knight in Maine not only survive, but share their experiences. Michael Finkel's new book about Knight, "The Stranger in the Woods," shows another side of the hermit story — the one in which the protagonist does what he needs to survive, and lives to tell his tale because of it.
The story is strangely fascinating, even though not all that much happens. By Knight's own admission, he spent a lot of time doing "nothing" in the 27 years he spent living in a relatively comfortable Maine woods camp complete with mini-kitchen, tent, radio (and at times a portable TV), a camp chair and plenty of books. His reading material — along with all the food, batteries, cooking fuel, and soap he needed was stolen from the lakeside cabins that were just minutes from his hideaway. So, this isn't the story of a live-off-the-lander (though certainly ingenuity was needed, and fortitude was required to survive the harsh Maine winters). It's a story of a survivor, who headed to the woods at 20 and stayed there for 27 years without directly interacting with another soul — until he was caught.
It's a testament to Finkel's tight writing and the smart pacing of the book that it turns out to be a fascinating read: I devoured it in two reading sessions during which I laughed a few times and also thought quite a lot about why I enjoy being on my own most of the time, too. It may be genetic, as Finkel explores in the book. For some, the solitary life is a punishment; for others, a reward: As Knight said, "Some thrive in solitude, most do not."
I had plenty of questions for the man who got Knight to open up to him when nobody else could.
MNN: Perseverance seems to have been an important aspect of getting Knight to open up to you and share his story. Why do you think he started talking to you — and why did he kept going?
Michael Finkel: We began communicating by hand-written letter — one of the most old-fashioned and yet personal forms of communication. I believe it was this "soft" initiation to our relationship — letters are typically written when you're alone, a way of communicating without needing to see anyone — that allowed Knight to open up to me.
Then there was the amazing serendipity that we both, independently, noted the pleasing coincidence of the summer solstice occurring at nearly the same time as the super moon (the full moon that is closest to Earth during the year) — we had a bonding moment over nature awareness.
I also sent him my first book (called "True Story") and a couple of my magazine articles, so he could get a feel for my writing style.
Our first jailhouse visit was extremely uncomfortable, but I recalled what he wrote in his letters about being comfortable in silence, so I remained silent for a spell, and this allowed him to relax.
All these factors, and surely some luck as well, inspired Knight to share his unique and unforgettable story with me.
(The video below explains more about Knight's unintended rise to fame.)
At one point Knight tells you, 'I have woodscraft.' What does that mean to you and what do you think he meant by it?
It means that Knight understands the forest, how to walk through it nearly silently, how to move like an animal, how to judge the seasons just by looking at the trees, how to observe the forest, its smells, its sounds, its moods.
I was intrigued by how Knight was both physically close to other people at his campsite, and also that he, at least peripherally, kept up with the world by reading books, magazines, watching TV (for some years) and listening to the radio. Did he ever give a reason for not living further away from people or why he read and listen to the radio?
Knight realized that if he were going to live in Maine, completely alone, then he would have to steal for food — no way could a person hunt and fish through those winters, not without lots of help. So he chose a spot where the woods were so thick he could remain completely hidden, but where there were so many cabins around that he would always have an opportunity to pilfer food and clothing.
As for reading and listening to the radio — Knight never said that he hated society or other people. He just didn't want to be physically around them. With books and the radio there is no other person there — it's safe, there are words or voices but no need to actually interact with another person.
You write that 'mostly what he did was nothing.' As a busy writer with three small children, did you find that hard to relate to?
As an overly busy person, I was jealous of that. I wish I had less busyness in my life, but like many of us, I can't seem to carve out time for quiet contemplation. Or maybe I'm afraid to. I have a very strong feeling that if we all had a bit more "nothing" time — a period each day, perhaps only 15 minutes, in which we literally did nothing (no looking at your phone!) — then this world, I feel certain, would be a much better place.
You spend a bit of time looking into the possible mental health issues that Knight could have. But as you detail in the chapter on the variety and long history of hermits from various cultures, there have been millions of people who have separated from society. Did you feel that you got that question enough from other people that you had to answer it?
When someone is such a complete outlier from the rest of humanity, there is the instinct to see what kind of problem that person had. Why is this person so unlike the rest of us? There must be something wrong with him. That's an understandable thought pattern.
But Christopher Knight, in so many ways, was simply uncategorizable. No diagnosis really fit him. He was so highly intelligent. He may have been simply too smart for this world. And it's entirely possible that there's very little "wrong" with Chris Knight. Perhaps the people who are actually "wrong" are the rest of us.
Do you know if Knight has read the book and what his reaction is, if so?
I sent Knight my book as soon as it was finished. But I have heard nothing back from him. I assume that he has read it — he is such an avid reader. I can't be sure how he feels about the book, but I had previously written a magazine article about Knight (for GQ a few years ago). I also sent Knight the GQ story, and heard nothing back. But I met with Knight after the article was published, and he said he'd read it. He implied that there were parts he liked and parts he didn't like, but overall, he seemed to respect my article. The book has a similar tone as the article. It's my hope that Knight respects the book as well.
Many of us have those days where we endeavor to do 'nothing,' yet years of that seems almost impossible to imagine. Do you think he really figured out something deeper or greater by taking time, as hermits of old have, to do nothing but be?
I am virtually positive that Christopher Knight experienced something utterly profound, something that none of us will ever really experience — something amazing and difficult and frightening and wondrous, all at once.
* * *
I have to admit to finding a lot in common with what Knight told Finkel he saw in the society he grew up in: "Being in gym class made me feel like I was trapped in the 'Lord of the Flies'," Knight said, and every kid who has ever been frustrated by being forced to play sports cheered in my head. While I don't usually find interacting with others to be "frustrating" and every meeting with another person is not a "collision," there are days when that's an apt description.
There were advantages to living outside society. He did whatever he wanted in between raids to find more supplies. He developed a new sense of time where the "moon was the minute hand, the seasons, the hour hand." He watched the birds, he sat often in quiet contemplation, day-dreamed, and told Finkel he was "never bored."
As the musician in the video above sings, "You and I will never know what the North Pond Hermit knows, no we don't know what the North Pond hermit knows."
We probably can't. Knight's almost three decades sans human contact experience was incredibly unique, and also totally human.
Image credit: "The Stranger in the Woods" cover photo courtesy of Penguin Random House