A friend gave me a copy of “Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit” by Michael Finkel. This quick read is a narrative account of Christopher Knight’s 2o plus years of living in solitude near a central Maine lake. Knight lived within walking distance of hundreds of vacation cabins but camouflaged his camp so that no one, other than two people, saw him in 20 years.
I’ve spent the last three years getting increasingly serious about practicing my meditation. The thought of spending 20 years on what was essentially a silent retreat is certainly appealing. The tremendous insight and calm Knight exhibited after his capture certainly speaks to the meditative quality he experienced by himself. As a high school teacher, I recognized in Knight the agony of former students who presented as not able to find their place in the world. I feared that the end compulsory and structured environment of high school would create turmoil so deep that they would become unmoored.
One passage that I kept returning to involved the second time Knight was spotted by another human being. Three generations of ice fisherman (Grandfather, father, son) were post-holing through snowy woods when they spotted Knight. Immediately the grandfather yelled out that they would not report seeing him, though they knew who he was. In response, Knight bowed and non-verbally thanked them. The drama of this scene captivated me.
The book left me conflicted. Though personally envious of the blessing so many years of solitude gave Knight I was sympathetic to his many victims. Knight stole from unlocked or seasonally abandoned vacation cabins to steal his clothes, supplies, entertainment and most importantly food. The owners of these cabins suffered the anxiety of knowing somebody was out there, breaking into their homes. These thefts ultimately ended Knights hermit years when he was arrested mid burglary at a summer camp kitchen. It is one thing to escape from society and to live simply. But to turn to a life of petty crime in order to sustain yourself is unforgivable.
Clearly Knight had a tremendous well of willpower to stay hidden for two decades. He went into the woods a 19 year old kid and left a 40 year old man. Hard not to imagine elements of mental illness in his story. Solitude has been a component of man’s search for meaning since the dawn of time. Knight’s story fits somewhere in that narrative for good or bad.