The Stranger in the Woods
Updated: Mar 27, 2022
A Review of Michael Finkel's NYT Best Seller
“How many things there are that I do not want.” This ancient quote from the Greek philosopher Socrates opens this revelationary account of chosen isolation with what amounts to subliminal foreshadowing of our main character’s somewhat murky personal motivations. In the early part of 1986, a 21-year-old man named Christopher Knight decided to do what many before him had claimed to want, to live in the woods truly alone and isolated from the world. Leaving his home of Massachusetts, Knight drove up to the dense wilderness of Maine and promptly disappeared, not to be contacted again for over 27 years. Living alone in a tent and surviving through cleverness, petty thievery and drawing on his prior life experience as an alarm technician, Knight was able to live life on his own terms. Told in both a narrative and first-person interview style from extensive letters and meetings with Knight himself, this book examines what it means to live by one’s own limits and how living a life outside of society’s boundaries can be truly freeing. It brings up layered and difficult to answer questions; what makes some people crave solitude and a life away from modern comforts? Is it a craving for the at once lively, yet desolate peace that only nature can seem to provide and if so what are the consequences of these? If anyone in the world might know, it’ll be Christopher Knight.
The local legend of the North Pond Hermit grew from the summer cabin laden lake community of Rome, Maine into a national phenomenon upon Christopher Knight’s sudden removal from obscurity into the harsh lights of the media and a jail cell. After over 10,000 evenings of perpetual solitude and an estimated 1,500 small scale burglaries, his capture at the hands of a local forestry agent and former Marine had been part of a years long campaign to find the burglar of the lake and bring them to justice. The campaign heavily split the community between those who saw the “mountain man” as a menace, those who thought him as almost a neutral force of nature and those who pitied him as a man who just to be left out of the hum-drum social contract extant in modern life. The state of Maine has long been a destination for quirky characters and the densely forested area around the small hamlet of Rome has attracted many with a thirst to escape from city troubles and connect back to the land like some deep, ancient part of us always yearns for. Christopher had exemplified this base connection more than anyone in recent memory; he was like a spirit of the forest, clairvoyant to the leaves nearly invisible to the land. Those who are most successful in surviving long periods alone most commonly persist through strength of will, nature skills, and ingenuity. As Knight put it, “it’s better to be tough than strong, better to be clever than intelligent…I was tough and clever.” (Finkel, 2017)
Leaving his small farming family two years after graduating high school around the age of 20, the once rakish yet quiet kid with a wry intelligence to match any old-time philosopher stole his brother’s car, drove to a thick and old patch of hidden woods and melted into the forest, not to be seen again for almost 27 years in what he later called his “pursuit of silence”. This want of his, the craving to be alone with the forest and the silence of an absent humanity was a salve on the spirit of a boy who had never quite fit in, had said he never felt the connection and personal definition that one was supposed to find in a world full of others. In his own words, “It’s complicated…solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can’t dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant.” (Finkel, 2017)
This lens of non-obligate otherness from the people in his life and social interaction as a whole seemed to be the primary drive for the 21-year-old man who disappeared into the Maine wilderness; a trend of incompatibility that seems to run through a great deal of famous hermits throughout world history. As Jiddu Krishnamurti once put it, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” When one feels distant from all grounding principles with which they were instilled in youth and, most commonly, as if they have nothing left in the life they live, retreating to an existence for without unnecessary emotional complication might sound like an oasis in a tumultuous and often overwhelming sea.
That sea, however, can be deathly treacherous when isn’t quite as well suited to their change as they’d predicted. Often, those who pursue periods of solitary life are walking a thin line between personal freedom and a spiraling insanity. One salient example of this dichotomy was the in the first around-the-world sailing competition held in 1968 in which two contestants had wildly opposed reactions to the absolute isolation of crossing the entire world in a non-stop competition with nature for survival. One competitor, Donald Crowhurst had experienced a deterioration of his mental state from intense loneliness and a fear of failure upon his return. His abandoned ship, found adrift in the ocean without him on it, contained a logbook of increasingly rambling comments and heavily falsified records that seemed to become more and more unhinged until his final sign off: a full caps plea for mercy from the universe to deliver him from whatever madness he had experienced in his own mind. Sharpley contrasted with Crowhurst was another competitor, Bernard Moitessier from France. About midway through his travel, Moitesser began to realize that the sense of overwhelming warmth and freedom he was increasingly experiencing came as a gift from the emptiness that surrounded him, he was able to delve deeper into his own person and discover a purer truth in living that kept him sailing for an entire additional year, not even bothering to complete the now trivial race. This second phenomenon has been observed in countless groups around the globe; from indigenous vision quests to intrepid explorers to ascetic holy men, deep solitude has been liberating in both mind and body, with a French Priest named Charles Foucauld saying of his fifteen years traversing the desert: “one empties completely the small house of one’s soul.”
Knight seemed as if a perfect mixture of both sailors in what became a serendipitous model for contentment through reflection and a retraction of self into an ancient and cave like area of the human psyche from which few ever return the same, if they return at all. Knight and Moitesser, however, seem to have developed a special mode of overcoming their own biology that most of humanity can’t hope to achieve. We are, after all, highly social animals whose brains grew to their relatively gargantuan size in response to growing social skills and study after study has proven that our brains absolutely “[do] not like to be alone with [themselves]” as researchers from the University of Virginia discovered. (Nadia Whitehead et al., 2016) In fact, isolation has been found by science to routinely be as harmful as obesity, cigarettes and many of the deadliest conditions in human life. These studies have also been further backed up by inmate and guard testimonials on the effects of the incredibly cruel practice of solitary confinement. A punishment delivered to thousands of those incarcerated every year in the United States, being in solitary has been described as being “buried alive” with many inmates going gradually insane from lack of neurological stimulation.
During his tenure awaiting sentencing at the Kennoec County Jail, Knight was, not unsurprisingly, found to be an exception to these biological rules. He found himself not able to mesh with an indoor and mild yet forced social life; he broke out in hives, lost a large amount of weight, obtained a sickly spoiled milk-like pallor and covered it all with a mask made of a long burly beard he called his “prison calendar”. While inside, Knight realized that his lack of social skills and faded understanding of human emotional expression displayed itself to many as arrogance and rudeness when in truth he was simply directly and unflinchingly honest. He also re-discovered the annoyance he felt at small talk and conversation in general, he craved a quiet that he came to understand would never again be afforded to him in this world. Knight actually even claimed that accepting the first visit while in jail from his future book’s author was only out of a will to retrain his brain and to relearn that most human of mechanisms for positive social interaction that are little white lies. Many of those who have gone through similar experiences are commonly thought of as being mentally challenged, indeed Knight was deemed insane, a schizophrenic; many in the lake community thought anyone who lived secluded from all human contact for 27 years must be crazy in some fashion. Once in custody and forced to interact on at least a base level with people again, he was surprised and concerned at the intimidation many felt at this practice of silence. Knight said, “silence is to me normal, comfortable like a blanket on a cold winter’s morning.” (Finkel, 2017)
This comforting blanket, however, did not come comfortably for Knight. Hunkering down through brutally cold winters, routinely being close to starvation and a gradual deterioration of his eyesight causing frequent small injuries put Knight through a patchwork of suffering every bit as impactful and present as the happiness he received from his isolation. In his multiple letters and interviews from jail with the book’s author Michael Finkel, Christopher extolled the necessity of suffering as one of the two ingredients for true happiness. He believed that not in spite of, but because of his suffering, he was able to contrast what would be dull days of middling temperatures and dappled sunlight for the rest of us into universal blessings. In a quote by one of Knight’s favorite authors (read from stolen books) Fyodor Dostoyevsky claimed that “suffering is the sole origin of consciousness and man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with [that] suffering,” The pain and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that Knight experienced in his years alone appeared to Finkel to be just the cost of living the life Knight truly wanted. He used his pain and torment to bring a miraculous sort of ecstasy to the world, through the suffering of his body into the flourishing of his spirit. This feeling is one found in many areas of our lives, that through our greatest hardships and adversities we can discover our greatest strengths and a unique view of happiness through contentment and revelation.
In a brief interview on the nature of solitude with my brother Rolf Guntert, I was told stories that mirrored the experiences of many; stories of being at university with stress and low self-esteem causing increasing social isolation and of drinking to deal with stress in turn leading to more social experience but with a hollow feeling to it that felt devoid of real meaning. He’d struggled with maintaining relationships as we all do in a modern world filled with an equal amount of stresses and distractions that make finding coherent and impactful meaning difficult, not to mention the increasingly arduous task of finding your place both mentally and physically in a hectic landscape. While now seven years sober, married and with three kids, he still admitted that every day is a struggle to balance the negatives of his past with the positives of his present.
What I learned in our talk is that my brother’s past suffering had both informed and precipitated his present growth into a happiness all his own at a level that could counter and even overcome his negatives. As British Naturalist Richard Jefferies famously spoke on in the mid-1880s, we tend to live our lives trapped in a Buddhist-style cycle of suffering that we ourselves tend to create, living within stuffy cities and layered social expectations resulting in us being “chained as if like a horse to an iron pin in the ground.” We all must work hard each and every day to discover within ourselves what will make us truly happy and determine how to overcome the constant internal rationalizations that so often distract us from our true wants and needs. We must guide our own ways through this labyrinth of suffering into the beautiful spring day of contentment and personal fulfillment. In the words of the author Michael Finkel “the world is a confusing place, meaningful and meaningless at once”, and it is our duty to the ancient pursuit of a meaningful life to find our own little hidden patch of forest by the water in which to grow, an Eden unto ourselves.