Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hermit ("The Stranger in the Woods" by Michael Finkel)

When he was twenty years old, Christopher Knight parked his car along a rural road in central Maine, left the keys on the dashboard, and walked into the surrounding forest. He had few supplies, no food, and no plan. For the next twenty-seven years, Knight would remain there, living in a makeshift tent in a small clearing with no contact between himself and another person save for a solitary hiker, with whom he exchanged monosyllabic greetings before moving on. He survived by stealing food and other necessities from nearby homes and cabins, many of which were only occupied during the summer months, and keeping his activities limited to nighttime and non-winter excursions.

It was, he would later profess, his own personal idea of paradise.

When he finally reappeared in society, escorted there by local police after more than a thousand break-ins, he found himself even more of a loner than before he first set foot in the woods. He had never been a social person; throughout his early years, including those spent in public school, he left little impression on anyone or anything. Raised to be honest, self-sufficient, and intellectually curious, Knight had always longed for the solitude that only nature could provide. And so he followed his desires, relying on frozen meat and junk food left behind by seasonal tourists, as well as the books, soap, shampoo, and propane tanks of local residents, to keep him thriving both physically and mentally. His arrest, which brought an end to both the world's most successful--albeit monotonous--crime spree and a generation of local urban legends, also marked another milestone: at age 47, Knight had dedicated more than half his life to living alone in the woods.

In the closing pages of The Stranger in the Woods, a nonfiction account of Christopher Knight's life during and after his time in the forest, journalist Michael Finkel attempts to explain just what his subject was hoping to accomplish:
He wasn't going to leave behind a single recorded thought, not a photo, not an idea. No person would know of his experience. Nothing would ever be written about him. He would simply vanish, and no one on this teeming planet would notice. His end wouldn't create so much as a ripple on North Pond. It would have been an existence, a life, of utter perfection.
A conclusion such as this might seem strange out of context--a man willing to be forgotten, and to think of such a life as perfection--but when read at the end of such a complicated story, this seems like a fitting and appropriate summation.

What makes Finkel's conclusion problematic is not how strongly it runs counter to the narratives our society embraces--that we must be concerned with our legacy, our footprints, our need to accomplish much and accomplish often--but how Finkel's entire book undermines its own thesis. If, as Finkel believes, Knight wanted to die in his encampment and be absorbed into nature, decomposed by the very same wilderness that offered him refuge, then Finkel has made such an end impossible and rendered the perfect as unachievable. Even if Knight were to return to the forest to die, as he intimates doing at one point, his death would not erase him from the world; instead, Christopher Knight, the so-called "last hermit," would be forever preserved because of Finkel's own book, which is now a bestseller.

Rarely do we encounter those who willingly remove themselves from society and are better for it; more often than not, those who live in this world, whether they do so in large cities or rural towns, belong to a community, and their absence from this community, whether it be for days or weeks or years, causes irreparable damage. Those who do separate themselves often descend into a strange form of madness; they may not suffer from a recognized or diagnosable illness, but something about them changes, something slightly perceptible at first, then unavoidable, until they become an entirely different person. They become a stranger, as though the isolation has jolted unseen fault lines into dangerous movements, which cannot be traced back or undone. Knight, as depicted by Finkel, seems to waver between becoming one of these people--his inability to make eye contact or engage in social niceties are startling aspects to his personality, ones that don't seem to have been a part of him before his exile into the forest--and preserving that small, pulsing nucleus of his individuality, which thrived as he devoured books, honed his survival instincts, and developed an appreciation for classical music, all in the wilderness of Maine.

Finkel wants us to believe that more of us should follow Knight's lead--abandon society, even briefly, to rediscover the benefits of silence, of boredom, of self-sufficiency, of nature, of solitude--even as the very subject of his book, the soul of this thesis, refuses to play along. Given every opportunity, Knight refuses to speak the words of Thoreauvian wisdom Finkel so desperately wants and expects, even as he simultaneously acknowledges that such wisdom--if it were to be delivered--would benefit almost no one. When asked what he's learned after so much time in the wild, Knight takes a long pause and recommends we get enough sleep; he then turns and is taken back to his prison cell, his wisdom seemingly spent.

Finkel's attitude towards Knight is never consistent, despite having had more contact with him than anyone else outside of his immediate family. At first, he initiates a conversation through letters, which rarely focus on Knight's time in the woods. Eventually, he takes a further step and visits Knight in prison, where the hermit's strange mannerisms become clear. Eventually, once Knight is paroled, Finkel begins stalking the man; he schedules flights to Maine from Montana and arrives unannounced at Knight's home, despite the fact that all of Knight's family members have refused to comment on the matter. He drives around Knight's small town speaking to those in his community about him, temporarily sets up camp in Knight's old clearing, attends Knight's sentencing, hounds his brothers, teases Knight about a potential girlfriend, and continues writing letters to him, all of which make the reading experience increasingly uncomfortable. Only when Knight insists that Finkel stop and threatens him with a call to the police does the author finally--and mercifully--relent, and for the first time since his arrest chapters earlier, the "character" of Christopher Knight is given the peace he has so desperately wanted.

Perhaps Finkel believes all of this is well-intentioned:  an attempt to connect with a man who struggles to do so. Perhaps he believes he is doing a service for his readers, who--he imagines--would want to know more about someone who seems so unwilling to share anything even remotely personal. Instead, Finkel becomes the very thing Knight had spent so many years eluding:  the ever-present set of eyes that is constantly judging, constantly questioning, constantly demanding. Among other people, Knight was forced to wear a mask of society's making, one that offered up meaningless small talk with ease, exhibited the appropriate facial expressions, watched mindless television, avoided anything intellectually engaging, and scorned those who didn't do the same. Among the trees, Knight could chip away at the mask, piece by piece, until he was finally himself. Even prison offered him enough structure and solitude to keep the full mask at bay.

But a journalist who arrives unannounced and uninvited, pries into his personal life, asks unwanted questions, and initiates contact with family members is little more than those prying eyes come back with a new mask in hand. And in publishing a book devoted exclusively to Knight, whose only real desire is to be left alone and forgotten, Finkel has committed the most heinous crime of all:  he has forced Knight to remain a public figure long after he's passed away. Rather than being the subject of some long-forgotten online articles--the very kind that require refined Internet searches and hours of scrolling--Knight will be preserved as caricature and exhibit, his mask made of paper and ink and bytes, and his name synonymous with freak. Michael Finke could have used this book to explore the ways in which our society has disconnected us from one another and the world around us, and the benefits of getting those connections back; instead, he has reminded us that, no matter how we work to fix ourselves and pursue our redemptions, there will always be those who stand at the forest's edge, mask in hand, waiting for us to emerge.