Anyone who needs to believe that there is certainty and consistency in the world should avoid reading Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods. To begin with, the author is a confessed fabulist, who was fired from The New York Times for passing off a composite character as the sole protagonist of a “true” story. His latest book includes copious notes on the reporting process and sources, but its subject, the man who came to be known as the North Pond Hermit, has been accused by some of fictionalizing his own story.
There definitely was a recluse who committed hundreds of burglaries over nearly three decades. But did he really live in a hidden campsite for all that time, never initiating contact with others, and uttering only one syllable (“Hi”) to another human being? Some of his neighbors were skeptical; they didn’t believe that anyone could have remained unseen and could have survived so many Maine winters.
Neighbors disagreed not only about Christopher Knight’s credibility but also about how and whether to punish him for his crimes. He stole only what he needed to survive—food, batteries, books, etc.—never taking anything of significant monetary value, but some people said that he stole their most valuable possession: a sense of security. Instead of peaceful retreats, their homes became locked fortresses, where every night they lived in fear of intrusion. Those people believed that Knight deserved the strongest possible punishment. But other neighbors, including the woman on whose property he lived, believed that instead of being imprisoned he should be allowed to continue living undisturbed in the woods; some even said that they would contribute money toward his upkeep, so that he would no longer need to steal.
Knight felt bad about burgling, but he saw no other way to maintain his chosen lifestyle. Once he had resolved to avoid human contact, he couldn’t very well go to the convenience store that was a short walk from his campsite, or knock on people’s doors begging for food and supplies. His reasons for going into seclusion are pretty simple: He wanted to live alone and to make as little impact on the earth as possible. Toward these ends, he was willing to suffer a lot of physical deprivation.
Beyond tending to his basic needs, Knight did not lead a very busy life. He read books, observed nature (he had no pets but felt a sort of camaraderie with a particular mushroom growing nearby), listened to the radio, and drank alcohol (more and more as he got older, which may help to explain the emotional attachment to a fungus). He did not write anything, not even a journal, because that would have implied a connection with eventual others. When asked if his years of contemplation in the wilderness had led him to any great truths, the only bit of wisdom he shared was that it’s important to get plenty of sleep.
Ironically, the hermit’s lawyer is known for ignoring this advice. “Mr. McKee does not sleep,” states his website. He seems like a competent attorney; he got Mr. Knight’s sentence reduced to time served, mental-health treatment, community service, and about $2,000 in restitution. Besides being a prominent lawyer, McKee is a runner, skier, mountaineer, pilot, and violinist, and he has a wife and children to boot (should he have the energy for it).
To summarize, here are some of the questions I’ve been pondering about the North Pond Hermit: Did he really live alone in the woods for 27 years? Was he wrong to steal from people to keep himself alive? Is it really important to get a good night’s sleep? Should more of us consider adopting the hermit lifestyle, in order to avoid doing a lot more damage to the planet? And how much can you trust a journalist who is famous for being dishonest?
Perhaps the most difficult question for me is this: How much human contact do I really need? I frequently get so fed up with people in general that I can imagine never spending another minute in human company. But my dreams of escape rarely involve rugged outdoor living. I’m more likely to consider suicide, although it hardly seems right to punish myself for other people’s annoying behavior.
I generally find comfort and reassurance in the company of people who know me well. I also enjoy pleasant but brief interactions with people who don’t know me at all. It’s the many in-between encounters, with co-workers, acquaintances, and non-immediate family members, that drain my energy reserves and make me long for solitude.
What I find most unbelievable in Christopher Knight’s story is his claim that during the 27 years he lived alone he never spoke at all, not even to himself. When I am alone, which is usually for no more than a few hours a day, I talk constantly—to myself, to the cats, to my computer, to people on the radio (no, I don’t think they can hear me). Sometimes I talk to myself or another object and then notice that another person has heard me. Maybe being truly alone for days or years would break me of this embarrassing habit. There’s only one way to find out.