I have just finished a very compelling biography written by Michael Finkel- The Stranger in the Woods- The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. It is a fascinating account of the life of Chris Knight, a man who made the choice to leave his home town and family to live alone in the woods for almost thirty years. To survive he stole food from the cabins and camps within walking distance from his hidey hole in the forest. He never started a fire, for fear of being discovered and only traveled at night and often in the rain when he thought he would least likely be spotted.
Knight is described as a lover of books– he is well versed in the Tao Te Ching. He enjoys stories like Robinson Crusoe or war history books. He read whatever stolen books he could lay his hands on. He rigged up an antennae and listened to late night talk radio, classic rock and classical music. Oddly enough he enjoyed listening to Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond. Because he was so elusive, he was dubbed the North Pond Hermit or sometimes the Hungry Man.
There are also many interesting tidbits in this book on the history of hermits. In Europe during the Middle Ages the people who wanted to live away from society were called anchorites- they were often bricked into tiny dark cells and were taken care of by the church. Pursuers are explained as people who escape human contact to write, philosophize or create art. Finkel peppers this story with some scientific explanations as to why some people may be more prone to avoiding society- there are studies that prove genetics could be part of the factor. Low levels of oxytocin mixed with high quantities of the hormone vasopresin may cause a person to need less human interactions.
I felt the author was suggesting that people like Knight are not a total anomaly- every other country seems to have a place or name for these kinds of people. It was also interesting to read about the completely different reactions the local residents had about Knight. Some hated him, while others were more accepting. One enterprising man tried to leave him a pen and paper to offer him food or anything else he required so that he wouldn’t have to steal. Although the word hermit in our culture has a bad connotation to it- after reading this book I have a new perspective on hermits. Now I will think of someone who may have an intellectual bent and a close commune with nature.
One of the best insights into Knights soul ( I think) is when Knight explains how he decided it was best not to have a pet, so he wouldn’t have to compete for food with it. Instead he reveals how he was very fond of a shelf mushroom that grew slowly along side his campsite.
This book is a gentle account of a man who knew that the only peace he could find for himself was to be left completely alone in nature. A feat that seems close to impossible in our modern day world.
Click below for one of the many songs about Chris Knight
Want to understand Chris Knight better? Here is a link to The Tao Te Ching