In 1986 a man disappears into the woods. 27 years later he is found and caught raiding a pantry of a summer camp. During all those years he hasn’t returned to society, and has lived in the harsh climate of Northern Maine. What happened in that time, and how was he able to survive for that long?
Most of us have probably had the urge every now and then to escape society – to move somewhere closer to nature. This book describes the story of Christopher Knight who did exactly that. When he was twenty years old he took off into the woods to live there permanently without any contact with society. He didn’t tell his family, nor anyone else, and after a while he was presumed dead.
Throughout the decades he managed to avoid detection, taking care to never leave any trace behind. He didn’t light a fire, not even during the cold winter, because he feared that someone might be able to see the smoke. He learned how to move silently throughout the forest, relying on experience to guide him in the night. In winter he wouldn’t even leave his camp because of the potential risk that his footsteps would be visible in the snow.
But how did he manage to survive? Here is where the story gets interesting: he raided nearby cabins and camps for food and supplies. All in all, more than a thousand burglaries were recorded. Because of the thefts everyone knew that someone was living in the woods, since only food and basic supplies were ever stolen, and everything of value was left behind. In fact, after a few years of this, people would start hanging shopping lists outside their cabins, asking the hermit to write down what he wanted to have. Needless to say, he didn’t write any of his wishes down – he couldn’t risk it being a trap.
But after 27 years, and repeated and increased efforts to catch him, he was finally apprehended by a local guard. Whilst in custody Michael Finkel, the author of The Stranger in the Woods, sets out to contact him to learn more about the intriguing story.
In history, hermits were often regarded as wise since they could observe society from the outside in and provide knowledge seekers with new insight. In some sense, Christopher Knight’s story is not much different: although he probably wouldn’t like to be branded as a source of wisdom, he does have some interesting insights into isolation, boredom and society.
“Isolation is the raw material of greatness”
“Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can’t dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant.”
For most of us, isolation is dreadful. In modern life, where spending time alone hardly exists any more, we simply whip out phones during even the shortest periods of being alone. It almost seems like we cannot be alone with our thoughts anymore. It’s simply uncomfortable. There is a constant pressure to be connected and to keep up to date. The fear of missing out is real, especially with the constant barrage of pop-up messages we receive.
In fact, a few years back there was a study that had participants spend up to 15 minutes with there thoughts in an empty room. About half of the participants said they disliked the experience. Then, as a next step, the participants again went into the room for 15 minutes, but this time they were left with a button to shock themselves if they wanted to. 67% of the men and 25% of the women shocked themselves rather than spend the 15 minutes alone with their thoughts.
But in silence and isolation there is also the time to reflect, and to let go of all pressing concerns. It is in these moments that it’s possible to come up with solutions to problems we’re facing, or with creative and artistic ideas.
To experience the benefits of isolation you don’t have to spend a long time alone, or be a hermit in the woods. Even going for a walk by yourself is already a good first step. Nobody is there to interrupt you, and if you walk in a sufficiently quiet environment, you will soon find yourself alone with your thoughts. And, in that moment of silence, your mind will start to wander, and you might be surprised by the thoughts that come up.
In Latin this even has a name: solvitur ambulando. Literally: “it is solved by walking.” The link between moving around (aimlessly) and solving problems really seems to exist.
Of course there is a big difference between spending some time with yourself, and spending almost three decades alone. The former is probably a healthy habit to develop, while the latter is most certainly unhealthy for the vast majority of people. Prisoners spending a long time in isolation, for example, quickly develop mental problems such as hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, and difficulties with memory and concentration.
This does not mean that all of us have this issue though. Christopher Knight is one of those persons who not only yearns for solitude, but is able to survive – relatively unharmed – without any human connection.
“He was never once bored. He wasn’t sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom. It applied only to people who felt they had to be doing something all the time, which from what he’d observed was most people.”
Besides building, cleaning, and repairing his camp, and acquiring enough food and water, Christopher was free to spend his time as he wished. And without any of the modern distractions, there was indeed a lot of free time. Some of this he spend listening to the radio, or reading books (an “essential” like food and other basic supplies). Most of it, however, was spent doing nothing. Looking at nature, observing the birds, or just being alone with his thoughts.
One of the things he observed was a mushroom growing on a tree inside his campground. When he originally moved in, it was small and feeble. But as the years, and then the decades passed, the mushroom grew. At the time of his arrest the mushroom had grown to a formidable size. After his arrest, Christopher was actually quite concerned that when the police would find his campsite, they would accidentally destroy the mushroom – his sole companion in all those years. (He was happy to find out that they did not, and that it’s still living.)
“Nature, Knight clarified, is brutal. The weak do not survive, and neither do the strong. Life is a constant, merciless fight that everyone loses.”
Surviving in the wild is no easy matter; any accident can prove fatal. The smallest cut can lead to infection and death. On top of that, there are the brutal weather conditions. Many months per year were icy cold, and the ground was often covered by snow. If Christopher didn’t manage to store enough supplies in the summer and autumn, he would go hungry in winter.
If, during the winter, he didn’t wake up regularly during the night, there was a good chance he would die. Sleeping in a sleeping bag traps the moisture inside, and, as the night gets colder and colder, this increases the chance that he would freeze to death. So in winter he woke up every night at 2 AM in order to air out his sleeping bag, to move around, to keep his limps from freezing, and to melt some snow as drinking water.
“There was no one to complain to in the woods, so I did not complain.”
Did he ever complain about this? No. First, there was no one to listen to his complains. Second, his urge to leave society was so great that he kept subjecting himself to the same treatment year after year.
This Stoic treatment of his surroundings is impressive and something that we should learn from. Especially since we live in heated houses and have the opportunity to buy food whenever we want, yet we often complain loudly about all that is wrong and affecting us.
“It’s possible that Knight believed he was one of the few sane people left. He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer, in exchange for money, was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed. Observing the trees was indolent; cutting them down was enterprising. What did Knight do for a living? He lived for a living.”
One of the most interesting parts of the story is when Christopher returns to society. After spending 27 years as a hermit in the wilderness he is expected to integrate back into the city he left; to find a job and adjust back to society’s written, and unwritten, rules. All of this mandated by a court order.
As expected the integration was tough. Holding down a job after having no responsibilities except to survive in the wild, is not easy. At one point his brother provides him with a job in his business, and in the last part of the book he seems to be doing okay on the outside.
On the inside however, the change has had to be nearly impossible. In some of the last conversations the author had with Christopher he seems to be toying with the idea of suicide (meeting the “lady of the woods” as he describes it) by going into the forest in the middle of winter to freeze to death. But as time goes on, and winter passes, nothing happens. So the question remains whether Christopher is adjusting to society after all.
The Stranger in the Woods is short, snappy, and well-written. It contains some beautiful insights into isolation and solitude, and the story of Christopher Knight is nothing short of amazing. Recommended!
Photo credit: Lukasz Szmigiel (Unsplash)