In 1986, Christopher Knight stepped into the Maine woods in 1986 and stayed there for 27 years, eking out an existence by burgling local cabins for food, batteries, and clothes, leaving no trace as he moved through the wilderness. The “North Pond Hermit” grew into a local legend, reasonably feared by some; others saw him as a harmless eccentric and sometimes left supplies on their porches for the taking, just to save everyone the trouble. After he was finally caught breaking into a camp, Knight became a minor sensation, drawing the interest of journalist Michael Finkel, who turned his interviews with the sometimes combative recluse into The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.
This isn't Walden or Into the Wild. Knight doesn't seem to have been possessed by an urge to commune with nature, or even any kind of anti-societal philosophy. So what - other than a need to be alone - made him tick? Finkel was dogged in his research. Beyond his insistent interviews with the reluctant Knight - often to the point of his annoyance - Finkel retraced Knight's paths through the woods, explored his secluded, surprisingly sophisticated camp, and spoke with law enforcement and locals in his efforts to crack the enigma. Much about Knight remains mysterious - he is one genuinely unusual dude - but the investigation is fascinating.
For more insight, we asked Finkel for the common threads running through the hermit experience.
The Five Things All Hermits Say Happen to Them in Deep Solitude
by Michael Finkel
Hermits, as far as we know, have always existed. Recorded history goes back 5,000 years, and some of the earliest surviving documents, from Mesopotamia and China, speak of loners or wildmen living by themselves in the woods.
Some hermits left society for religious reasons, seeking a closer relationship with god; others fled because they hated what the world had become. Henry David Thoreau lived alone in his cabin and wrote Walden. Isaac Newton never had any close friendships yet uncovered the laws of planetary motion.
And just recently, in the woods of Maine, a man named Christopher Knight emerged after spending an amazing 27 years in woods, never holding a conversation with a single person -- one of the greatest known feats of solitude in all of human history.
Despite the remarkable time span and varied reasons that hermits have abandoned society, the reports about what it feels like to be alone are startlingly similar. (This is voluntary solitude, not someone forced to be alone, like a prisoner or hostage.)
Many of us have never once in our lives spent a day completely alone -- not to mention a month or a year or, in Knight’s case, nearly three decades. Here are the five most consistent reactions to a lengthy period of seclusion:
1. Perception of time radically changes. Virtually all hermits have reported an intense distortion in the way they sense the passage of time. “All distances, all measures, change for the person who becomes solitary,” wrote poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” added Thoreau.
Many hermits said they felt little awareness of the past or future -- they existed in the perpetual now, reaching a state Buddhists call “mindfulness.”
“Time died for me,” said Christopher Knight, the hermit from Maine.
2. Boundaries dissipate. Again and again in books written by hermits is a description of the dividing line between one’s own body and the outside world seeming to dissolve. In solitude, rather than feeling isolated, you actually feel extremely connected, in some sense, to everything else.
“I could feel no doubt of man’s oneness with the universe,” wrote solo polar explorer Richard Byrd.
Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that in isolation “one forgets one’s own being.”
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3. Creativity and perception is enhanced. Virtually every account of a retreat from society mentions that one’s senses become sharper, and one’s brain feels inspired to invent, to create, and to ponder great and unusual ideas.
“Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school for genius,” wrote 18th Century English historian Edward Gibbon.
4. You become attuned to nature. Most hermits retreat to natural environments -- deserts, forests, mountains. Nearly all report that their connection with the natural world is intricately enhanced.
Poet William Wordsworth described this attunement to nature as the “bliss of solitude.” Thoreau called it “medicine to the soul.”
5. You feel utterly free. Perhaps this is the greatest sensation of all reported by solitaries -- the feeling of utter liberation.
“I am free, free as never before,” wrote solo sailor Bernard Moitessier, who nearly circumnavigated the world twice one of his voyages.
And Christopher Knight, the latest hermit to join the pantheon of the great solitaries in history, said this: “I ceased to exist for society. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”
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