I was so intrigued by Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods, which tells the ‘extraordinary story of the last true hermit’. This non-fiction book has been praised highly. Sebastian Junger calls it ‘breathtaking’, and The Wall Street Journal nicely sums the book up, saying that it is a ‘meditation on solitude, wildness and survival’. Published in 2017, The Stranger in the Woods is Finkel’s second book.
The book focuses upon Christopher Knight, who, in 1986, and at the age of twenty, decided to leave his home in Maine. He drove into the woods, and then disappeared. Consequently, ‘he would not speak to another living soul for three decades. Until, that is, he became hunted.’ Knight stayed in a single camp in the woods, not far from his home, surviving ‘by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to scavenge food and survive the harshest of winters. In the process, he unsettled a community – myths abounded among the locals eager to find this legendary hermit.’
The Stranger in the Woods opens with Finkel setting the scene. He writes: ‘The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives, but they’re tangled over giant boulders with deadfall everywhere like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. Navigation, for nearly everyone, is a thrashing, branch-snapping ordeal, and at dark the place seems impenetrable.’ For Knight, however, who only leaves his camp at midnight, his home is easy to get around: ‘He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken. On the ground there are still mounds of snow, sun-cupped and dirty, and slicks of mud – springtime, central Maine – but he avoids all of it. He bounds from rock to root to rock without a footprint left behind.’ Knight is, from the first, fearful of being discovered by those who live in the nearby town, and likes to leave not a trace of himself behind.
Following Knight’s disappearance, he becomes aware of only what is important to his new existence. ‘He is,’ writes Finkel, ‘unaware of the year, even the decade, and does not know the proper names of places. He’s stripped the world to his essentials, and proper names are not essential. He knows the season, intimately, its every gradation… He knows the moon, a sliver less than half tonight, waning. Typically, he’d await the new moon – darker is better – but his hunger had become critical.’ Knight becomes as self-reliant as he can, and as his situation necessitates, but he can get the things he needs only by stealing them from local residents. However, his string of thefts come with a set of moral values: ‘… if it looks valuable, the hermit will not steal it.’
Knight, who soon becomes both fascinating to, and feared by, the people targeted by his thefts, is not what anyone expected him to be. When he is caught in the act of stealing food from a local summer camp, in April 2013, Finkel describes the way in which: ‘There’s no dirt on him anywhere, and little more than a shading of stubble on his chin. He has no noticeable body odor. His thinning hair, mostly covered by his wool cap, is neatly cropped. His skin is strangely pale, with several scabs on his wrists. He’s a little over six feet tall and broad-shouldered, maybe one hundred and eighty pounds.’ When asked about his life by local police, Knight responded that he spent the entire winter in a nylon tent, ‘and did not once in all those winters light a fire. Smoke might give his campsite away. Each autumn, he says, he stockpiled food at his camp, then didn’t leave for five or six months, until the snow had melted enough for him to walk through the forest without leaving prints.’ He also says that he spent no money whatsoever during his time in the woods.
During his time as a hermit, Knight became sensationalised, almost a mythical creature, and any mention of him used to terrify local children. Finkel notes that ‘Because of the types of articles that were stolen, one family called him the Mountain Man, but that frightened their children, so they changed it to the Hungry Man. Most people, including the police, began referring to the intruder simply as the hermit, or the North Pond hermit, or, more formally, the hermit of North Pond. Some police reports mentioned “the legend of the hermit,” and on others, where a suspect’s full name was requested, he was recorded as Hermit Hermit.’ The local community, almost from the first, became wary and fearful: ‘He seemed to haunt the forest. Families returned from a quiet trip into town wondering if they were going to encounter a burglar. They feared he was waiting in the woods, watching… Every walk to the woodpile provoked a goose-bumpy feeling that someone was lurking behind a tree. All the normal night sounds became the noise of an intruder.’
Interestingly, Knight was never reported as a missing person, and had no contact with his family from the point of his disappearance. Upon his discovery, he was completely unaware of what he looked like, had learnt to shave without using a mirror, and had only spoken one word – ‘Hi’ – in twenty-seven years, when he met a hiker in the woods. He had no physical contact with anyone during his period in hiding. Following his arrest, Knight became known all over the world, and many were fascinated by his story. Five different songs were written about him, a local deli created a sandwich known as “the Hermit”, someone offered him land to live on rent-free, and a woman even proposed marriage. The fact that he refused to speak about himself, or his time in the woods, in public, only intensified the longing of others to know about him.
The Stranger in the Woods is well paced, and is made up of a series of short chapters. Finkel’s narrative style is easy to read; he has a quite informative and almost poetic prose style, which still manages to be chatty and informal. He writes throughout of his experience in first writing to, and then meeting, Knight in prison, and detailing his story down. He comes across as a sympathetic biographer, someone who largely leaves judgement out of his account. The Stranger in the Woods is a fascinating book, which has made me consider further loneliness and isolation, and how impossible it must be to live alone in such a way as Knight did without disturbing the peace.