Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei The Stranger in the Woods: The Ex­tra­or­di­nary Story of the Last True Her­mit

“His seclu­sion was not pure, he was a thief, but he per­sisted for 27 years while speak­ing a to­tal of one word and never touch­ing any­one else. Christopher Knight, you could ar­gue, is the most soli­tary known per­son in all of hu­man his­tory.”

That’s a good de­scrip­tion of “North Pond her­mit” Christopher Knight in Michael Finkel’s fas­ci­nat­ing book

(Si­mon & Schus­ter, 203pp, $29.99). It’s good be­cause it de­scribes Knight but does not an­swer the ques­tion any reader will ask: Why did he do it? Nor does the book, de­spite Knight be­ing its main source. And that makes it even more in­trigu­ing to read.

The one word Knight spoke in 27 years, by the way, was “hi”. He said it to a hiker who crossed his path. Then he fled, and worked out how to hide even bet­ter.

I first learned of Knight a cou­ple of years ago when Finkel wrote a story about him for GQ mag­a­zine. When I learned Finkel had turned the story into a book I was ex­cited. As some­one who likes soli­tude and val­ues si­lence, I wanted to read about a man who, in this day and age, chose a life that took such pref­er­ences to an ex­treme level.

As such, I was on his side. I sus­pect I’m not alone in be­ing at­tracted to this sort of think­ing: “It’s pos­si­ble Knight be­lieved he was one of the few sane peo­ple left. He was con­founded by the idea that pass­ing the prime of your life in a cu­bi­cle, spend­ing hours a day at a com­puter, in ex­change for money, was con­sid­ered ac­cept­able, but re­lax­ing in a tent in the woods was dis­turbed.”

But it’s not as sim­ple as that. As men­tioned ear­lier, Knight stole — from hol­i­day cab­ins and from a char­ity-based camp for dis­abled peo­ple — to stay alive. He took mainly food but also more ex­pen­sive items such as gas tanks, pots and pans, tools, torches, ra­dios, car bat­ter­ies, clothes and even a TV at one point. He pock­eted cash now and then — $US395 in to­tal over 27 years — but not ex­pen­sive items such as jew­ellery or com­put­ers. By the time he was caught in 2013, he had com­mit­ted more than 1000 break-and-en­ter rob­beries. He said he was ashamed of them, pleaded guilty and spent al­most a year in jail. He had psy­cho­log­i­cal tests that, while not de­fin­i­tive, do sug­gest some rea­sons for his be­hav­iour.

He hated prison be­cause it was full of other peo­ple, though his spir­its lifted when he was moved to a sin­gle cell. In letters to Finkel, who ini­ti­ated con­tact, he said he coped by re­duc­ing his vo­cab­u­lary to just five words, spo­ken only to guards. He added a com­ment that might pro­vide some in­sight into his per­son­al­ity: “I will ad­mit to feel­ing a lit­tle con­tempt for those who can’t keep quiet.”

Knight comes across as in­tel­li­gent to the point of ar­ro­gance. He’s well read (he stole a lot of books). It makes me laugh when he’s asked about noted tran­scen­den­tal­ist Henry David Thoreau, who lived in a Mas­sachusetts cabin for two years, an ex­pe­ri­ence that pro­duced his fa­mous book Walden. “Thoreau,” Knight de­clares, “was a dilet­tante.” Knight’s favourite book is one I ad­mit to lik­ing too, Fy­o­dor Dos­to­evsky’s Notes from the Un­der­ground, with its iso­lated and bit­ter nar­ra­tor. He also likes Daniel De­foe’s Robin­son Cru­soe, though I sus­pect he wishes Fri­day would go away.

Knight did not record his own ex­pe­ri­ences. He didn’t write po­ems. Af­ter his ar­rest he did not speak pub­licly, though he was billed as “the most fa­mous per­son in the state of Maine”. He had no in­ter­est in chang­ing the world be­yond his own. “I wasn’t con­sciously judg­ing so­ci­ety or my­self. I just chose a dif­fer­ent path.”

Knight, who was raised in Maine, was 20 and work­ing in Mas­sachusetts — as an alarm in­staller, which would come in handy later — when he drove home, parked his car at the edge of the woods and walked in. It was 1986. Ron­ald Rea­gan was US pres­i­dent and the Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear disaster had just hap­pened. Nei­ther was the rea­son he went wild. He had no plan, or sup­plies. “It was as if he went camp­ing for a week­end,” Finkel writes, “and didn’t come home for a quar­ter cen­tury.”

Knight came from a solid ru­ral fam­ily, with four brothers and one sis­ter. He would not see or hear from any of them for a long time. “To the rest of the world, I ceased to ex­ist,” Knight says. Well, not quite. When his fa­ther died 15 years later, Knight was listed in the obit­u­ary as a liv­ing son. His mother never gave up hope. Her son, now in his 50s, lives with her.

Knight tells Finkel he has thought a lot about why he did what he did. His an­swer: “It’s a mys­tery.”

Knight isn’t fond of be­ing de­scribed as a her­mit, though he ac­cepts it’s an ac­cu­rate use of the word. He didn’t look like one — he shaved ev­ery day and wore de­cent (pur­loined) clothes — and he was no pil­lar­ist or an­chorite. He didn’t med­i­tate. He wasn’t re­li­gious. His camp was only min­utes from peo­ple, hence the close­ness of prop­er­ties to bur­gle, but so well hidden as to be in­ac­ces­si­ble to any­one but him, a man who had wood­craft skills that im­pressed even the po­lice. When Finkel vis­ited it, his mo­bile phone worked fine.

Knight lived in a large tent and slept in a bed. He read, he lis­tened to the ra­dio. He knew what was going on in the world. He wore the same glasses he was wear­ing when he was 20. He says he never fell ill be­cause “you need to have con­tact with other hu­mans to get sick”. He was of­ten hun­gry, but when he had food he was able to cook it. He was of­ten cold. There’s a funny mo­ment when Finkel asks him how he avoided the vi­cious mos­qui­toes that plague the area. Some Ar­ca­dian nostrum per­haps? “I used bug spray,” Knight replies.

He is wryly amused about be­ing thought of as a “warm and fuzzy per­son, filled with friendly her­mit wis­dom”. That very im­age goes to how some lo­cals re­sponded to their mys­te­ri­ous loner. They left bags of food on their front steps, or a notepad on which he was in­vited to write down any­thing he needed. Maine is used to odd char­ac­ters. Oth­ers, par­tic­u­larly fam­i­lies with young chil­dren, were scared of the man who haunted the woods. They thought of him hid­ing be­hind a tree, watch­ing them. They feared he’d sneak into their homes while they were sleep­ing. There was talk of poi­son­ing him, or set­ting bear traps.

There was — and re­mains — a the­ory that Knight was not a her­mit at all. That he had help from fam­ily mem­bers or friends, that he spent win­ter liv­ing in empty prop­er­ties. That is one of the ques­tions about Finkel’s book: the her­mit tells the story. It’s his ver­sion of events. The au­thor does try to get in­side Knight’s mind, but that is hard work. Finkel does of­fer some con­text by con­sid­er­ing other his­tor­i­cal her­mits, but this feels a bit like pad­ding.

As the “reign of the her­mit” con­tin­ued — and be­came more brazen — res­i­dents started to “her­mit-proof” their prop­er­ties with dead­locks, alarm sys­tems and se­cu­rity cam­eras. And so it was that one night in April 2013 Knight was nabbed by the lo­cal law­man. The story of Knight’s re­turn to the world is just as ab­sorb­ing as the story of his time away from it.

‘North Pond her­mit’ Christopher Knight

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