Retreating from the world – The North Pond Hermit

I don’t often blog about what I’m reading, but I was really affected by THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS, the true story of Christopher Knight, the Maine man who walked into the woods in 1986, remaining there in isolation until 2013, when he was caught breaking into a cottage to steal food (as he had done 1000 times previously). A bright student, Knight had a fairly stable upbringing in rural Maine before moving to the Boston area to train as an electrician. His self-analysis in the book is fascinating; “I did examine myself. Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there… There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”

Knight was unable to articulate why, at the age of 20, he made the decision to drive his Subaru deep into the woods until it ran out of gas, continuing on foot, finally making his new home on a piece of land surrounded by boulders, with an almost invisible entrance between them. His only regret, it seems, was that he had to resort to stealing (over 1000 times) from neighboring cottages and a camp in order to survive. Amazingly, through those long, cold Maine winters, he never once started a wood fire, fearful the smoke would give him away.

I suppose we all feel the need to escape from the world sometimes, but to do so in such a drastic manner?  In the book, Knight describes his family as being obsessed with privacy. Author Michael Finkel writes: “One’s desire to be alone, biologists have found, is partially genetic and to some degree measurable. If you have low levels of the pituitary peptide oxytocin – sometimes called the master chemical of sociability – and high quantities of the hormone vasopressin, which may suppress your need for affection, you tend to require fewer interpersonal relationships.”  And: “Each of us inherits from our parents a certain level of need for social inclusion…” (John Cacioppo, LONELINESS)

Interesting. I’d never heard that before, and I’ve spent some time reflecting on my own parents and myself as social beings.

Did Michael Finkel share his royalties with Knight? I hope so since Penguin Random House describes it as a National Bestseller, and at best, Knight seemed to be a reluctant participant. I tried to get an update on Christopher Knight, hoping to find he’d managed to retreat into the solitude and stillness of the woods once again, but the internet has little current information. I’m sure that’s just as he would want it.

8 thoughts on “Retreating from the world – The North Pond Hermit

  1. mirkabreen

    There are people who LIVE the sort of stories most of us can only absorb as allegories. Here you pointed a book which tells the story of one who didn’t want to be a story, but wanted to live it.
    I find his choice fascinating and terrifying. Even in the midst of connectivity, we are islands in many ways.

    1. Indeed – we all feel so detached sometimes, even in the midst of the world around us. I’ve been working on a project that has a hermit character, so that’s why I was especially interested.

  2. I know I couldn’t do it! Even when I would walk my dog at Shubie Park in Dartmouth, if I didn’t pass anyone on the trails for a long stretch, I would feel uneasy about it.

  3. I’m reading the book now, after reading Finkel’s original “GQ” article from 2013. I’m almost certain Knight is hiding something. It would explain the “Why?” He despised National Geographic magazine only because it photographed a Peruvian shepherd boy crying after his goats were killed. He was livid that the boy’s shame was broadcast to the world. Finkel asks if maybe Knight suffered a similar humiliation that helped exile him from people. We’ll probably never know.

    I’d like to visit his camp, and maybe overnight there sometime.

  4. Thanks for stopping by. Interesting idea – I remember him using National Geographic for flooring in his refuge. It’s tough to find out much about Knight these days. Hope he’s doing well.

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