Wednesday, February 24, 2021

the IRL book group read: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the True Hermit, by Michael Finkel


Vintage, 2018
203 pp


Truth be told, there is nowhere I'd rather be than in the woods.  We often make our way to a cabin in the Ocala Forest about four hours northwest from here, where there is no wifi, no television, lots of quiet, and at night sitting next to a  crackling fire outside, time for mezcal or bourbon shots, holding hands, laughing together and watching the flames.  Our stay generally consists of doing absolutely nothing except perhaps an occasional hike if it's not summer,  and lots of reading.  It's the place we go for mental battery recharging, reconnecting,  and it works wonders.  We go home and we're reset, ready to move on.  Chris Knight, the subject of this book, also enjoyed being in the woods. One day in 1986 he parked his car somewhere among the forests in Maine, left the keys and walked into the wildnerness.  Unlike us though, Chris never left.  He stayed there for twenty-seven years, and other than the impersonal "hi" to someone passing by his location, never spoke to another human being.  

And then came the day in 2013 when he came out of those woods, fully expecting to return to his solitude  but finding himself instead arrested for "almost certainly the biggest burglary case in the state of Maine," the number coming to 1,080 "to be exact."  

When I first decided that I wanted to read this book, I thought that it would be a story about a man with the sort of romantic notion of just dropping out of society, going off the grid.    Now after having finished it, my assumptions were completely wrong about this guy.  While he did indeed drop out, it wasn't a case of living off the land I had imagined -- in order to survive, Chris Knight became somewhat of a parasite --  helping himself to what belonged to others including  food, clothes, books, the occasional cash, watches, batteries, radios, and the list goes on.  But he had a "moral code" -- if an item looked valuable, he would leave it.  After he'd broken in and picked up whatever he needed, he returned to his camp until his supplies would run low and he'd do it all over again, likely never thinking of the people left feeling violated, frightened and angry; over the twenty-seven years in the woods, the so-called  "Mountain Man," "Hungry Man," the "North Pond Hermit," or whatever they'd labeled him had never been caught.    The last supply run he made was to a camp catering to kids and adults who had "physical and developmental disabilities," which he treated as his "own private Costco."   What drove him to do all of this?  Well, that's the maddening part -- we never really find out.  

That's not to say that the author didn't try -- in trying to understand the why, he ponders the possibilities of mental health/medical issues and family/personal background; he also delves into the world of hermits, historical and contemporary, contemplating what it is that has led many to leave the world behind and take up a solitary existence.  But as one psychologist notes about the North Pond Hermit, in the end
"Nothing makes complete sense... Knight is like a Rorschach card. He really is an object for everyone to project onto." 

Mr. Finkel notes at goodreads, under "Popular Answered Questions" about his book, that Knight "had a wildly unusual idea for how to live" and that "he has an awesome and daunting brain," with "insights into modern society and solitude and the meaning of life that you will find nowhere else."  That's all well and good, and over the course of the book you can see how the author feels himself getting closer to Knight, but the fact is that in the long run there really are no answers to be found here.   And Chris Knight isn't talking. Finkel's take on the matter is that Knight left "because the world is not made to accommodate people like him," while Knight says only that he'd found a place where he was "content."  He also wished that he "weren't so stupid to do illegal things to find contentment."  The truth is though that he did.  He also caused pain and anguish to his victims.   It seems to me to have been an impulsive decision to walk away from his car in 1986 and go into a life of self-imposed isolation; people who go off the grid generally have some long-term plan for how to do it.   Chris Knight obviously did not and ended up having to steal for his survival.  

The Stranger in the Woods makes for fascinating reading.  Aside from Chris Knight's story, what I locked onto really was the author's exploration of the natures of and differences between solitude and isolation.   My only issue with this book comes toward the ending  in the way that the author wouldn't let go, wouldn't respect the requested privacy of Chris or his family, and would not take no for answer.  That just seems wrong to me somehow.   However, the book as a whole is well worth reading, and as the title suggests, it is an "extraordinary story." 

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