You can’t make this stuff up
One of my favorite and most often used aphorisms in this lifetime has been “you can’t make this stuff up.” This adage applies 100 percent to Michael Finkel’s recent national best-selling book The Stranger in the Woods (The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit). Gifted a copy of the book from a friend who had read my book Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods and who thought that I would enjoy reading about “the ultimate hermit,” I dove right into the book and didn’t come up for air until I had reached page 203 at the end of the book.
Michael Finkel is a journalist who has reported from more than 50 countries and written for such publications as National Geographic, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and the New York Times Magazine, just to name a few. His “reporting” in this nonfiction bio-book is stellar and in a more story-telling style than something that may have been penned for Vanity Fair or Esquire (which he has also written for).
The story begins with the arrest of Christopher Knight after being caught stealing food from a summer camp refrigerator in the North Pond community near Albion, Maine. We follow Knight, step by step on his trek through the woods from his encampment into the mess hall for the summer camp. We can practically hear his heart beating from Finkel’s descriptive prose. Knight is caught in the act and is taken to the local jail by the police for questioning and for booking of multiple breaking and entering charges, which as it turns out, covers a period of 27 years.
The rest of the book is a flashback covering the 27 years that Christopher Knight has been living in a tent encampment completely off the grid where he has not spoken to or interacted with any human beings during the course of all these years. This fact alone is practically beyond belief. As someone who lived for four years off the grid, my reaction to this story is, again, “you can’t make this stuff up.”
And Finkel isn’t making anything up in The Stranger in the Woods, as the entire book is based on his lengthy interview sessions with Knight both during his custody in jail and afterwards. So, in a sense, even though the book isn’t written in the first person, this book is autobiographical, an as-told-to account of Christopher Knight’s life and lifestyle for those extraordinary 27 years.
How does one explain the fact of having lived alone in total isolation for 27 years?
Finkel writes, “Knight thinks of himself both as a common criminal and as a Nietzschean Ubermensch — a superman, subject to no one else’s rules, a master of self-discipline capable of transcending the vapidity of life. His only real relationship being between himself and the forest.” In his early twenties, Knight decided he’d seen enough of and lived long enough in the world of humans and their communities, drove his car from Portland up the coast of Maine to the Albion woods, parked the car at the end of a dirt road and started hiking with nothing more than what he could fit into his backpack. He found an isolated spot deep in the woods and set up camp. And here he remained for 27 years.
When asked by Finkel why he decided to do this, Knight explained that he left the modern world because the world was not made to accommodate people like him. “He was never happy in his youth,” writes Finkel, “not in high school, not with a job, not being around other people. There was no place for him, and instead of suffering further, he escaped. It wasn’t so much a protest as a quest; he was like a refugee from the human race. The forest offered him shelter.”
So, how did Christopher Knight survive in the woods as a solitary and with no practical survival skills or knowledge? He read books that he pilfered from the summer cabins around North Pond — hundreds of them. And he stole food and supplies from these same cabins and from the summer camp kitchens that were located in that same general vicinity. Finkel’s writing about Knight’s descriptions of his forays on a monthly basis to different uninhabited locations in search of food and equipment that would aid him in his struggle for survival are like we, as readers, are also part of the team that is breaking and entering into the structure(s) alongside Knight. We witness his every move. His every thought. His reveries and frustrations of discovery and in coming up short.
For the major part of this book we are living with Knight as the hermit, and it is not until the end of the book that we get to know him intimately and from a psychological perspective, as he shares his inner-most thoughts and beliefs in a few surprising conversations that they had during Finkel’s final meetings with the hermit after his brief incarceration and release from jail — including a couple chapters devoted to the social and psychological ideas of isolation and solitude.
Finkel quotes a recent University of Virginia study that found that 25 percent of people questioned would rather subject themselves to electric shocks than to do nothing but sit quietly with their thoughts for 15 minutes. Or, as Knight explained to Finkel after quoting from authors such as Thomas Merton, Ranier Maria Rilke, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lord Byron, Edward Abbey, the Tao Te Ching and Jack Kerouac from the reading he had done over the years, “The dividing line between myself and the forest seemed to dissolve. My isolation felt more like a communion. My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. You’re just there. You are. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”
Much as I’ve been asked over the years if I was ever lonely during my four years alone in the woods, my response was the same as Knight’s to this question. “I was never lonely,” he said. “If you like solitude you are never alone.”