Preface. On March 16, 2020 it was announced that the residents of most San Francisco Bay Area counties were expected to shelter in place for a few weeks to stop the Covid-19 pandemic. Three weeks? You can do it, Christopher Knight lived as a hermit for 27 years in the Maine woods, an amazing mental and physical feat – winters are brutal. Being completely alone for 27 years may have never even been done before since most hermits were fed by the their society, often revered and sought out by local people eager for wisdom. Psychologists diagnosed Knight with autism and schizoid personality disorder, but the author, Michael Finkel, doesn’t think he fits any category, and is simply a real outlier on the human spectrum. This book is far more than an odd biography of an eccentric hermit, it is profound, and I enjoyed the history of hermits and what they learned from their experience, especially Chris Knight, who’s also very likeable, bright, and has a good sense of humor.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
Michael Finkel. 2018. The Stranger in the Woods. The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. Vintage
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. This is when the hermit moves. He waits until midnight, shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools, and sets out from camp. A penlight is clipped to a chain around his neck, but he doesn’t need it yet. Every step is memorized. 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 bootprint left behind. One print, the hermit fears, might be enough to give him away. Secrecy is a fragile state, a single time undone and forever finished. A bootprint, if you’re truly committed, is therefore not allowed, not once. Too risky. So he glides like a ghost between the hemlocks and maples and white birches and elms until he emerges at the rocky shoreline of a frozen pond.
Motion-detecting floodlights and cameras are scattered around the Pine Tree grounds, installed chiefly because of him, but these are a joke. Their boundaries are fixed—learn where they are and keep away.
Then he climbs a slope to the parking lot and tests each vehicle’s doors. A Ford pickup opens. He takes a rain poncho, unopened in its packaging, and a silver-colored Armitron analog watch. It’s not an expensive watch.
People have sought out solitary existences at all times across all cultures, some revered and some despised. Confucius, who died in 479 B.C., seems to have spoken in praise of hermits—some, he said, as recorded by his disciples, had achieved great virtue. In the third and fourth centuries A.D., thousands of hermits, devout Christians known as the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers, moved into the limestone caves on both banks of the Nile River in Egypt. The nineteenth century brought Thoreau; the twentieth, the Unabomber. None of these hermits remained secluded as long as Knight did, at least not without significant help from assistants, or without being corralled into a monastery or convent, which is what happened to the Desert Fathers and Mothers. There might have existed—or, it’s possible, currently exist—hermits more completely hidden than Knight, but if so, they have never been found.
Capturing Knight was the human equivalent of netting a giant squid. His seclusion was not pure, he was a thief, but he persisted for twenty-seven years while speaking a total of one word and never touching anyone else. Christopher Knight, you could argue, is the most solitary known person in all of human history.
He began his three-page note with a description of one of his attempts to practice speaking. He had approached a half dozen of his fellow inmates, many of whom were young and hardened, and tried to initiate a conversation. The topic he had chosen to discuss with them was the pleasing synchronicity of the summer solstice and the supermoon. “I thought it of at least trivial interest,” he wrote. “Apparently not. You should have seen the blank looks I got.” Many of the people he attempted to talk with simply nodded and smiled and thought him “stupid or crazy.” Or they just stared at him unabashedly, as if he were some oddity on display.
Soon he essentially stopped talking. “I am retreating into silence as a defensive mode,” he mentioned. Eventually, he was down to uttering just five words, and only to guards: yes; no; please; thank you. “I am surprised,” he wrote, “by the amount of respect this garners me. That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable.
He shared only brief details about his time in the woods, but what he did reveal was harrowing. Some years, he made it clear, he barely survived the winter. In one letter, he said that to get through difficult times, he tried meditating. “I didn’t meditate every day, month, season in the woods. Just when death was near. Death in the form of too little food or too much cold for too long.” Meditation worked, he concluded.
The media was apparently clamoring to view a real live hermit, and Knight, by growing out his beard wildly, had provided the character they envisioned. His facial hair served not just as a calendar but also as a mask, absorbing the stares of others while allowing him a little privacy in plain sight. “I can hide behind it, I can play to stereotypes and assumptions. One of the benefits of being labeled a hermit is that it permits me strange behavior.
You can take virtually all the hermits in history and divide them into three general groups to explain why they hid: protesters, pilgrims, pursuers. Protesters are hermits whose primary reason for leaving is hatred of what the world has become. Some cite wars as their motive, or environmental destruction, or crime or consumerism or poverty or wealth. These hermits often wonder how the rest of the world can be so blind, not to notice what we’re doing to ourselves. “I have become solitary,” wrote the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “because to me the most desolate solitude seems preferable to the society of wicked men which is nourished only in betrayals and hatred.
Across much of Chinese history, it was customary to protest a corrupt emperor by leaving society and moving into the mountainous interior of the country. People who withdrew often came from the upper classes and were highly educated. Hermit protesters were so esteemed in China that a few times, tradition holds, when a non-corrupt emperor was seeking a successor, he passed over members of his own family and selected a solitary. Most turned down the offer, having found peace in reclusion.
The first great literary work about solitude, the Tao Te Ching, was written in ancient China, likely in the sixth century B.C., by a protester hermit named Lao-tzu. The book’s eighty-one short verses describe the pleasures of forsaking society and living in harmony with the seasons. The Tao Te Ching says that it is only through retreat rather than pursuit, through inaction rather than action, that we acquire wisdom. “Those with less become content,” says the Tao, “those with more become confused.” The poems, still widely read, have been hailed as a hermit manifesto for more than two thousand years.
Around a million protester hermits are living in Japan right now. They’re called hikikomori—“pulling inward”—and the majority are males, aged late teens and up, who have rejected Japan’s competitive, conformist, pressure-cooker culture. They have retreated into their childhood bedrooms and almost never emerge, in many cases for more than a decade. They pass the day reading or surfing the web. Their parents deliver meals to their doors, and psychologists offer them counseling online. The media has called them “the lost generation” and “the missing million.
Pilgrims—religious hermits—are by far the largest group. The connection between seclusion and spiritual awakening is profound. Jesus of Nazareth, after his baptism in the River Jordan, withdrew to the wilderness and lived alone for forty days, then began attracting his apostles. Siddhartha Gautama, in about 450 B.C., according to one version of the story, sat beneath a pipal tree in India, meditated for forty-nine days, and became Buddha. Tradition holds that the prophet Muhammad, in A.D. 610, was on a retreat in a cave near Mecca when an angel revealed to him the first of many verses that would become the Koran.
In Hindu philosophy, everyone ideally matures into a hermit. Becoming a sadhu, renouncing all familial and material attachments and turning to ritual worship, is the fourth and final stage of life. Some sadhus file their own death certificates, as their lives are considered terminated and they are legally dead to the nation of India. There are at least four million sadhus in India today.
During the Middle Ages, after the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt died out, a new form of Christian solitary emerged, this time in Europe. They were called anchorites—the name is derived from an ancient Greek word for “withdrawal”—and they lived alone in tiny dark cells, usually attached to the outer wall of a church. The ceremony initiating a new anchorite often included the last rites, and the cell’s doorway was sometimes bricked over. Anchorites were expected to remain in their cells for the rest of their lives; in some cases, they did so for over forty years. This existence, they believed, would offer an intimate connection with God, and salvation. Servants delivered food and emptied chamber pots through a small opening.
Virtually every large town across France, Italy, Spain, Germany, England, and Greece had an anchorite. In many areas, there were more females than males. A woman’s life in the Middle Ages was severely bound, and to become an anchorite, unburdened by social strictures or domestic toil, may have felt paradoxically emancipating. Scholars have called anchorites the progenitors of modern feminism.
Pursuers are the most modern type of hermits. Rather than fleeing society, like protesters, or living beholden to higher powers, like pilgrims, pursuers seek alone time for artistic freedom, scientific insight, or deeper self-understanding. Thoreau went to Walden to journey within, to explore “the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being.
“Not till we have lost the world,” wrote Thoreau, “do we begin to find ourselves.” “Thoreau,” said Chris Knight, offering his appraisal of the great transcendentalist, “was a dilettante.” Perhaps he was. Thoreau spent two years and two months, starting in 1845, at his cabin on Walden Pond in Massachusetts. He socialized in the town of Concord. He often dined with his mother. “I had more visitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period in my life,” he wrote. One dinner party at his place numbered twenty guests.
Thoreau’s biggest sin may have been publishing Walden. Knight said that writing a book, packaging one’s thoughts into a commodity, is not something a true hermit would do. Nor is hosting a party or hobnobbing in town. These actions are directed outward, toward society. They all shout, in some way, “Here I am!” Yet almost every hermit communicates with the outside world. Following the Tao Te Ching, so many protester hermits in China wrote poems—including poet-monks known as Cold Mountain, Pickup, Big Shield, and Stonehouse—that the genre was given its own name, shan-shui.
Saint Anthony was one of the first Desert Fathers, and the inspiration for thousands of Christian hermits who followed. Around A.D. 270, Anthony moved into an empty tomb in Egypt, where he stayed alone for more than a decade. He then lived in an abandoned fort for twenty years more, subsisting only on bread, salt, and water delivered by attendants, sleeping on the bare ground, never bathing, devoting his life to intense and often agonizing piety.
For much of his time in the desert, the biography adds, Anthony was inundated by parishioners seeking counsel. “The crowds,” Anthony said, “do not permit me to be alone.
Even the anchorites, locked up by themselves for life, were not separate from medieval society. Their cells were often in town, and most had a window through which they counseled visitors. People realized that speaking with a sympathetic anchorite could be more soothing than praying to a remote and unflinching God. Anchorites gained widespread fame as sages, and for several centuries, much of the population of Europe discussed great matters of life and death with hermits.
In the forest, Knight never snapped a photo, had no guests over for dinner, and did not write a sentence. His back was fully turned to the world. None of the hermit categories fit him properly. There was no clear why. Something he couldn’t quite feel had tugged him away from the world with the persistence of gravity. He was one of the longest-enduring solitaries, and among the most fervent as well. Christopher Knight was a true hermit. “I can’t explain my actions,” he said. “I had no plans when I left, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I just did it.
He still remained hungry. He wanted more than vegetables, and even if he did stick with gardens, the Maine summer, as every local knows, is that rare lovely guest who leaves your house early. Once it ended, Knight understood, for the next eight months the gardens and cornfields would lay fallow beyond snacking. Knight was realizing something almost every hermit in history has discovered: you can’t actually live by yourself all the time. You need help. Hermits often end up in deserts and mountains and boreal woodlands, the sorts of places where it’s nearly impossible to generate all your own food.
To feed themselves, several Desert Fathers wove reed baskets, which their assistants sold in town, using the proceeds to buy rations. In ancient China, hermits were shamans and herbalists and diviners. English hermits took jobs as toll collectors, beekeepers, woodcutters, and bookbinders. Many were beggars.
In eighteenth-century England, a fad swept the upper class. Several families felt their estate needed a hermit, and advertisements were placed in newspapers for “ornamental hermits” who were slack in grooming and willing to sleep in a cave. The job paid well, and hundreds of hermits were hired, typically on seven-year contracts, with one meal a day included. Some would emerge at dinner parties and greet guests. The English aristocracy of this period believed hermits radiated kindness and thoughtfulness, and for a couple of decades it was deemed worthy to keep one around.
To commit a thousand break-ins before getting caught, a world-class streak, requires precision and patience and daring and luck. It also demands a specific understanding of people. “I looked for patterns,” Knight said. “Everyone has patterns.” Knight perched at the edge of the woods and meticulously observed the families of North Pond, quiet breakfasts to dinner parties, visitors to vacancies, cars up and down the road, like some Jane Goodall of the human race. Nothing he saw tempted him to return.
He wasn’t a voyeur, he insisted. His surveillance was clinical, informational, mathematical. He did not learn anyone’s name. All he sought was to understand migration patterns—when people went shopping, when a cabin was unoccupied. He watched the families move about and knew when he could steal.
After that, he said, everything in his life became a matter of timing. The ideal time to steal was deep in the night, midweek, preferably when it was overcast, best in the rain. A heavy downpour was prime. People stayed out of the woods when it was nasty, and Knight wished to avoid encounters. Still, he did not walk on roads or trails, just in case, and he never launched a raid on a Friday or Saturday,
He liked to vary his methods, and he even varied how often he varied them.
He didn’t want to develop any patterns of his own, though he did make it a habit to embark on a raid only when freshly shaved or with a neatly groomed beard, and wearing clean clothing, to reduce suspicion on the slight chance that he was spotted.
Sometimes, if he was headed far or needed a load of propane or a replacement mattress—his occasionally grew moldy—it was easier to travel by canoe. He never stole one. Canoes are difficult to hide, and if you steal one, the owner will call the police. It was wiser to borrow; there was a large selection around the lake.
When he arrived at his chosen cabin, he’d make sure there were no vehicles in the driveway, no sign of someone inside—all the obvious things. This wasn’t sufficient. Burglary is a dicey enterprise, a felony offense, with a low margin for error. One mistake and the outside world would snatch him back. So he crouched in the dark and waited. Two hours, three hours, four hours, more. He needed to be sure no one was nearby, no one was watching, no one had called the police. This was not difficult for him; patience is his forte.
He never risked breaking into a home occupied year-round—too many variables—and he always wore a watch so he could monitor the time. Knight, like a vampire, did not want to stay out past sunrise.
He noticed when several cabins left out pens and paper, requesting a shopping list, and others offered him bags of books, hanging from a doorknob. But he was fearful of traps, or tricks, or initiating any sort of correspondence, even a grocery list. So he left everything untouched, and the trend faded away.
As the residents of North Pond invested in security upgrades, Knight adapted. He knew about alarms from his one paying job, and he used this knowledge to continue stealing—sometimes disabling systems or removing memory cards from surveillance cameras, before they became smaller and better hidden.
A burglary report filed by one police officer specifically noted the crime’s “unusual neatness.” The hermit, many officers felt, was a master thief. It was as if he were showing off, picking locks yet
The crime scenes themselves were so clean that the authorities offered their begrudging respect. “The level of discipline he showed while he broke into houses,” said Hughes, “is beyond what any of us can remotely imagine—the legwork, the reconnaissance, the talent with locks, his ability to get in and out without being detected.” A burglary report filed by one police officer specifically noted the crime’s “unusual neatness.” The hermit, many officers felt, was a master thief. It was as if he were showing off, picking locks yet stealing little, playing a strange sort of game.
It was always best, Knight believed, for a home owner to have no clear evidence that he or she had been robbed. Then he’d load everything into a canoe, if it was a canoe-borrowing trip, and paddle to the shore closest to his camp and unload. He’d return the canoe to the spot he’d taken it from, sprinkle some pine needles on the boat to make it appear unused, then haul his loot up through the Jarsey, between the elephant rocks, to his site.
Each raid brought him enough supplies to last about two weeks, and as he settled once more into his room in the woods—“back in my safe place, success”—he came as close as he could to experiencing joy.
The price of sociability is sometimes our health. Knight quarantined himself from the human race and thus avoided our biohazards. He stayed phenomenally healthy. Though he suffered deeply at times, he insists he never once had a medical emergency, or a serious illness, or a bad accident, or even a cold.
Poison ivy: leaves of three, let it be”—and so ably memorized where each patch grew that even at night he didn’t brush against it. He says he was never once afflicted.
Lyme disease, a bacterial illness transmitted through tick bites that can cause partial paralysis, is endemic to central Maine, but Knight was spared that as well. He brooded about Lyme for a while, then came to a realization: “I couldn’t do anything about it, so I stopped thinking about it.
At first, Knight worried about everything: snowstorms might bury him, hikers could find him, the police would capture him. Gradually, methodically, he shed most of his anxiety.
But not all. Being too relaxed, he felt, was also a danger. In appropriate doses, worry was useful, possibly lifesaving. “I used worry to encourage thought,” he said. “Worry can give you an extra prod to survive and plan. And I had to plan.
He never stole homemade meals or unwrapped items, for fear someone might poison him, so everything he took came sealed in a carton or can. He ate every morsel, scraping the containers clean. Then he deposited the wrappers and cartons in his camp’s dump, stuffed between boulders at the boundary of his site.
As long as it was food, it was good enough.” He spent no more than a few minutes preparing meals, yet he often passed the fortnight between raids without leaving camp, filling much of the time with chores, camp maintenance, hygiene, and entertainment.
His chief form of entertainment was reading. The last moments he was in a cabin were usually spent scanning bookshelves and nightstands. The life inside a book always felt welcoming to Knight. It pressed no demands on him, while the world of actual human interactions was so complex
The reading selection offered by the cabins was often dispiriting. With books, Knight did have specific desires and cravings—in some ways, reading material was more important to him than food—though when he was famished for words, he’d subsist on whatever the nightstands bestowed, highbrow or low.
Nor did he spend any nights away from his camp. “I have no desire to travel. I read. That’s my form of travel.
He claimed that he did not speak to himself aloud, not a word. “Oh, you mean like typical hermit behavior, huh? No, never.
He acknowledged, forthrightly, that a couple of cabins were enticing because of their subscriptions to Playboy. He was curious. He was only twenty years old when he disappeared, and had never been out on a date. He imagined that finding love was something like fishing. “Once I was in the woods, I had no contact, so there was no baited hook for me to bite upon. I’m a big fish uncaught.
It wasn’t reading or listening to the radio that actually occupied the majority of Knight’s free time. Mostly what he did was nothing. He sat on his bucket or in his lawn chair in quiet contemplation. There was no chanting, no mantra, no lotus position. “Daydreaming,” he termed it. “Meditation. Thinking about things. Thinking about whatever I wanted to think about.
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.
Hermits of ancient China had understood that wu wei, “non-doing,” was an essential part of life, and Knight believes there isn’t nearly enough nothing in the world anymore.
He began observing the mushroom when its cap was no bigger than a watch face. It grew unhurriedly, wearing a Santa’s hat of snow all winter, and eventually, after decades, expanded to the size of a dinner plate, striated with black and gray bands. The mushroom meant something to him; one of the few concerns Knight had after his arrest was that the police officers who’d tromped through his camp had knocked it down. When he learned that the mushroom was still there, he was pleased.
Even in the warm months, Knight rarely left his camp during the daytime. The chief exception to this came at the tail end of each summer, as the cabin owners were departing and the mosquitoes died down, when Knight embarked on a brief hiking season.
The chief problem with environmental noise one can’t control is that it’s impossible to ignore. The human body is designed to react to it.
The body responds immediately, even during sleep. People who live in cities experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones. These hormones, especially cortisol, increase one’s blood pressure, contributing to heart disease and cellular damage. Noise harms your body and boils your brain. The word “noise” is derived from the Latin word nausea.
All of Knight’s survival tactics were focused on winter. Each year, just as the cabins were shutting down for the season, often with food left behind in the pantry, Knight embarked on an intensified streak of all-night raids.
His first goal was to get fat. This was a life-or-death necessity. Every mammal in his forest, mouse to moose, had the same basic plan. He gorged himself on sugar and alcohol—it was the quickest way to gain weight, and he liked the feeling of inebriation.
He filled plastic totes with nonperishable food. He took warm clothes and sleeping bags. And he stockpiled propane, hauling the potbellied white tanks from barbecue grills all around North and Little North Ponds. The tanks were vital—not for cooking (cold food still nourishes) or heat (burning gas in a tent can create enough carbon monoxide to kill you) but for melting snow to make drinking water. It was a fuel-intensive task; Knight required ten tanks per winter. When each tank was finished, he buried it near his site. He never returned an empty.
The supply-gathering process was a race against the weather. With the first significant snowfall of the season, typically in November, all operations shut down. It is impossible to move through snow without making tracks, and Knight was obsessive about not leaving a print. So for the next six months, until the spring thaw in April, he rarely strayed from his clearing in the woods. Ideally, he wouldn’t depart from his camp at all the entire winter.
The blackflies can swarm so thickly in central Maine that you can’t breathe without inhaling some; every forearm slap leaves your fingers sticky with your own blood. Many North Pond locals find peak insect season more challenging than the severest cold snap.
It’s natural to assume that Knight just slept all the time during the cold season, a human hibernation, but this is wrong. “It is dangerous to sleep too long in winter,” he said. It was essential for him to know precisely how cold it was, his brain demanded it, so he always kept three thermometers in camp:
When frigid weather descended, he went to sleep at seven-thirty p.m. He’d cocoon himself in multiple layers of sleeping bags and cinch a tie-down strap near his feet to prevent the covers from slipping off.
Once in bed, he’d sleep six and a half hours, and arise at two a.m. That way, at the depth of cold, he was awake.
At extreme temperatures, it didn’t matter how well wrapped he was—if he remained in bed much longer, condensation from his body could freeze his sleeping bag. His core temperature would plunge, and the paralyzing lethargy of an extreme chill would begin to creep over him, starting at his feet and hands, then moving like an invading army to his heart. “If you try and sleep through that kind of cold, you might never wake up.
The first thing he’d do at two a.m. was light his stove and start melting snow. To get his blood circulating, he’d walk the perimeter of his camp. “Out of the tent. Turn left. Fifteen paces. Turn left. Eight paces. To my winter toilet. Do my business. Twenty paces back. A big triangle. Around again. And again. I like to pace.” He’d air out his sleeping bags, wicking away moisture. He did this every bitter-cold night for a quarter century. If it had snowed he’d shovel his site, pushing the snow to the camp’s perimeter, where it accumulated in great frozen mounds, walling him in.
His feet never seemed to fully thaw, but as long as he had a fresh pair of socks, this wasn’t really a problem. It is more important to be dry than warm.
By dawn, he’d have his day’s water supply. No matter how tempted he was to crawl back into his covers, he resisted. He had complete self-control. Naps were not permitted in his ideology, as they ruined his ability to achieve deep, rejuvenating sleep.
A short distance from his camp, Knight kept what he called his upper cache. Buried in the ground, so well camouflaged with twigs and leaves that you could walk right over it and never know, were two metal garbage bins and one plastic tote. They contained camping gear and winter clothes, enough so that if someone found his site, Knight could instantly abandon it and start anew. His commitment to isolation was absolute.
Knight was sensitive about being thought of as insane. “The idea of crazy has been attached to me,” he acknowledged. “I understand I’ve made an unusual lifestyle choice. But the label ‘crazy’ bothers me. Annoys me. Because it prevents response.” When someone asks if you’re crazy, Knight lamented, you can either say yes, which makes you crazy, or you can say no, which makes you sound defensive, as if you fear that you really are crazy. There’s no good answer. If anything, Knight thought of himself, in the grand tradition of Stoicism, as the opposite of crazy—as entirely clearheaded and rational.
When he learned that the bundles of magazines buried at his site were regarded by some locals as an eccentric habit, he was infuriated. Those bundles were a sensible recycling of reading material into floorboards.
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.
Knight insisted that his escape should not be interpreted as a critique of modern life. “I wasn’t consciously judging society or myself. I just chose a different path.” Yet he’d seen enough of the world from his perch in the trees to be repulsed by the quantity of stuff people bought while the planet was casually poisoned, everyone hypnotized into apathy by “a bunch of candy-colored fluff” on a billion and one little screens. Knight observed modern life and recoiled from its banality.