In 1986, when he was 20 years old, Christopher Knight left his home in Maine and for almost thirty years lived alone in the woods.
He slept in a tent in an enclave made up of hemlock, maple, and elm trees. He never built a fire, even in the winter, to remain undetected. He would venture out of the woods in the spring to gather — steal — everything he needed from neighboring homes and cabins.
The only person he had contact with during those years was one hiker he passed in the woods. All he said was “hi”.
He was a legend in Maine until he was caught mid-break-in and arrested for burglary and theft.
I read about Knight in the GQ article “The Strange & Curious Tale of the North Pond Hermit”. Curious, yes, but I didn’t think his tale was strange at all. I completely understood him and envied him.
Wait — let me clarify. I don’t understand living in the woods during winter without a fire. Stealing is wrong. I don’t envy him being arrested and incarcerated.
Here are a few understandable things (at least to me) Knight said to the author of the article, Michael Finkel, in letters and in person while he was in jail:
In a letter to Finkel he wrote: “I wince at the rudeness of this reply but think it better to be clear and honest rather than polite.”
He wrote of his time in jail: “I am retreating into silence as a defensive move…I’m surprised by the amount of respect this garners me. That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is normal to me, comfortable.”
While indicating the glass between him and Finkel, Knight said “I’m glad this is between us. If there was a set of blinds here. I’d close them.”
He confided to Finkel that “since his capture, he’d often found himself emotionally overwhelmed at unexpected moments. ‘Like TV commercials, he said, ‘have made me teary”
Finkel writes that “everything he said seemed candid and blunt, unfiltered by the safety net of social niceties. ‘I’m not sorry about being rude if it gets to the point quicker’.”
On the day he left for the woods he says he had “a backpack and minimal stuff. I had no plans. I had no map. I didn’t know where I was going. I just walked away.”
“I lost track of where I was, he said. “I didn’t care.”
Finkel visited Knight’s home in the woods and wrote that “it was as gorgeous and peaceful a place as I have ever spent time.”
Knight “made a firm decision that unless forcibly removed he was going to spend the rest of his life behind the trees.”
Before he was released from jail he told Finkel: “I don’t know your world…Only my world, and memories of the world before I went into the woods. What life is today? What is proper? I have to figure out how to live…I miss the woods. Sitting here in jail, I don’t like what I see in the society I’m about to enter. I don’t think I’m going to fit in. It’s too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia.”
Knight accepted that the term “hermit” applied to him but according to him, true hermits “do not write books, do not have friends, and do not answer questions.”
Finkel asked him why he didn’t keep a journal. Knight replied “I expected to die out there. Who would read my journal? You? I’d rather take it to my grave.”
Did Knight learn anything?
I did examine myself…solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing
— when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.
His grand insight after Finkel annoyingly pushed for one? “Get enough sleep.”
What did he miss most about his life in the woods? “What I miss most…is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.”
Why did he disappear? At first he told Finkel “I don’t have a reason…I can’t explain why…It’s a mystery to me, too… That question bores me.”
Then he added: “I found a place where I was content.”
Life seems to be made up of a lot of little circles — school, friends, jobs, better jobs, books, movies, dating, marriage, kids, money, more money — and these circles when taken together are what we call “having a life”.
We try to find meaning and happiness and who we are through these circles. I certainly do. And I always feel unsatisfied and unfulfilled. The circles are too small. I feel like there must be one ultimate, big circle out there where I can be completely content and find peace.
When I read Knight’s story, he seemed to get as close to that big circle as I’m clumsily trying to describe.
Solitude, stillness, silence, nature…no need to define yourself. Freedom. Reading that he had no plans or map and didn’t know where he was going and just walked away excited, amazed and thrilled me. And kind of depressed me because I knew I could never do what he did. I’m not brave enough.
But the desire is still there. The “holy rage” is calling my name.
In an article in Marie Claire magazine on highly sensitive people, author Helen Kirwan-Taylor wrote that “fifty thousand years ago, an HSP would have been happily cocooned in her comfortably appointed cave (from which she ventured only when the coast was clear).”
Christopher Knight created a modern version. I’d like one, too.
*I have written many times (in my journal) about my avoidance of people’s faces. I go into the world and deliberately avoid scanning people’s faces for the same reason Knight gave: too much information. A lot of the time, curiosity takes over and I see. And then when I’m alone, I go through all the faces of the day and it is the definition of overstimulating to me.