The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
5 out of 5 Magical Coffee Cups
Many people dream of escaping modern life, but most will never act on it. This is the remarkable true story of a man who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years, making this dream a reality–not out of anger at the world, but simply because he preferred to live on his own. In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life–why did he leave? what did he learn?–as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.
Think about the longest you have gone without human contact; no speaking, no seeing, no calls, no texts, no emails. This is a book about a man who spent 27 years alone in the woods.
Covid forced a lot of people into solitude, and people reacted in very different ways. Some struggled, some found ways to reach out (zoom, facetime, parade-style parties), some found hidden talents to share with the world, and some enjoyed the time alone. I happened to be a person who appreciated my time alone. I will admit I was far from being truly alone. I had siblings and friends contacting me often.
In this book, the author goes over hermits from different cultures worldwide and even throughout history. I think my favorite was “ornamental hermits.” Wealthy families in 18th century England hired people to live in caves on their land. They were taken care of and even brought out for parties at times.
The author went over the positives and negatives of isolation. I found the information intriguing.
“Time amid the silence of nature, in other words, makes you smarter.”
“Human brains are wired to connect – magnetic resonance imaging shows that the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain is activated when we face social pain, like being shunned from a group or picked last on the playground.”
I can see the truth in both these statements. I also agree with the quote:
“The difference between bliss and distress generally seems to be whether solitude is chosen or involuntary.”
While the book goes over a lot about the history of hermits, we also learn a lot about Christopher Knight. You hear about his life in the woods. Was he indeed a hermit? You hear about his life after his arrest. What punishment does he deserve?
This is a fascinating book, and I am not sure how I feel about it. There was a lot of emotion in this book. You can’t help but think about all that he did to those around him. His actions affected a lot of people around him. You have to read the book yourself to decide if he was without fault or deserved the punishment he received.
I am not an outdoorsy person. I have no intention of ever going camping, but I understand Christopher Knight and his desire to be alone. I don’t think I could go 27 years without human contact, but I would love to have a week or so to myself.