Are you a Stranger in the Woods?

I just finished listening to The Stranger in the Woods; the Extraordinary Life of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. This is a non-fiction account of Christopher Knight. At age 20, Chris ditched his car and walked away from an apartment and a dead-end job, preferring to live by himself in the Maine woods rather than conform to the demands of a society he did not feel part of. When Chris fled to the woods it was out of a desperate need to be alone. To have the quiet to contemplate. To be outside. Twenty-seven years later, he was arrested for burglary and sent to jail.

There is so much interesting thinking here for anyone trying to craft a life that fits with who you are. And the book reminds us that we are all different, that what works for one person does not work for all. This includes a conventional education path, climbing a ladder, to-do lists, and that ever-present push to “succeed.” If that makes you happy, great. But if it doesn’t, what then?

Unfortunately, our society does not support the concept or reality of a hermit life and Chris had to steal food and occasional supplies from summer resident cabins at North Pond, Maine. I’m sure it was terrifying for local residents to know that someone was taking things from them so I don’t advocate Chris’s lifestyle. At the same time, other cultures, past and current, have honored a hermit life and seem better at recognizing that some folks truly like to be alone and that there’s something mystical, magical, and “okay” about that.

The narrative is told haltingly because Chris is a reluctant teller of his own story. He only opened up to Finkel in desperation to have someone to talk to when he was in jail awaiting trial. He didn’t set out to be a folk hero or living legend. To fill in the gaps, Finkel shares a ton of research on other hermits in history, and on the brain science of how you get smarter by being quiet.

One of my favorite things Chris said toward the end of the book was that he was considered crazy for wanting to sit quietly with the trees but that if he had gone in and cut the trees down he would have been considered industrious. That keeping his own quiet company for nearly three decades was aberrant, but that working at a 9-5 job he hated and numbing out by watching TV every night would have been considered “normal.”

Not speaking for 27 years wouldn’t work for me, nor would breaking laws as Chris did. But here’s what I took away from this compassionate telling of Chris’s story that will stay with me:

  • If your life choices aren’t working for you, take the time you need to contemplate what would work better. And then be bold enough to step out and be different. There’s no set formula that creates a happy life.
  • Find a place to live and work that makes you happy. This could be outside by yourself, or it might be deep in the heart of NYC!
  • Spend time each day being quiet.
  • Don’t be scared off by a big challenge. Sometimes you have to drop everything and walk away to find the things that truly matter.
  • Be kind and compassionate when you meet people who “don’t fit.” They are on a different path.

Thoughts to ponder as the days get shorter and colder – and I’m very happy to have a warm home to return to.

This little beauty popped up on a front walk over the weekend. We’ve already had light frosts here in Maine and we did not grow petunias in the garden this year. So it’s a gift – from where, we do not know :).

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4 thoughts on “Are you a Stranger in the Woods?

  1. One of the most interesting aspects of Knight’s time in the woods was that he was observing humanity while he was there — notably he heard and saw the comings and goings of local residents, read magazines and listened to WCSH TV on a radio.Thus, although he had “checked out from society”, he was fully aware of who the Kardashians were (as an example).

    His story in many ways mirrors that of the Monson, Maine “hermit” I recently wrote a book about. There’s an interesting interplay between the desire to be alone and the need to be among other humans. Even in the midst of his Walden experiment, Thoreau regularly ate Saturday dinner with his mother. The subject of my book, Jim Whyte, lived in quasi isolation because he was running from his past and hiding an illicit business to boot. But even he needed to come down off the mountain to face his own mortality and died in a New Jersey home for the aged.

    An interesting subject indeed.


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