The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
This is the last book from my April reading that I’ll be reviewing here. As I said in my previous post, I was tempted to just write the whole month off, but this book has stuck in my head for the last few weeks, so I’m finding it worth the time to unpack it a bit and encourage others to give it a go. The Stranger in the Woods is about a man, Chris Knight, who is arrested one night in the early spring of 2013 after having lived alone in the Maine woods for over twenty years. He’s arrested because he’s sustained himself, for all that time, off of the food, books, and other supplies he’s stolen from cabins and the larders of a campground that border his hermetical retreat. Finkel, a marginally disgraced journalist (he once used multiple subjects to form a single composite subject—apparently a hugely taboo thing to do in the field of journalism—was found out, and subsequently he was made persona non grata at a number of publications), found himself connecting with the figure illustrated by the news stories he reads about Knight. He reached out, established a relationship with Chris, and this deceptively slim book is the result.
In addition to a fairly detailed biography of Knight—where he came from, how he managed to live in the woods, what happened to him after his arrest—Finkel provides the reader with a lovely history of hermeticism, a history that is fragmented and scattered across the book in conjunction with illuminating dips into the philosophies of other hermits. While reading, we enter into conversation with loners ranging from the obvious Thoreau (who Knight describes as “a dilettante”) to the more obscure (to me at least) Tenzin Palmo, the second Western woman to become a Tibetan Buddhist nun.
It’s hard not to compare The Stranger in the Woods to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the original creative nonfiction exploration of a young man (also named Chris, incidentally) who tries to remove himself from society and make a solo life living off the land. Krakauer’s subject infamously was not able to survive, but Finkel’s subject, one believes, could easily have thrived out in the woods until he died had law enforcement not seen fit to intervene. The disparate fates of Chris Knight and Chris McCandles could explain the different tones of each book, the different implicit morals the authors leave you to mull over when the storytelling is done. Into the Wild provides a beautiful but harsh lesson in why people need each other; The Stranger in the Woods suggests that there’s a small fraction of our population who may, for whatever reason, fare better without direct contact.
Of course, Knight, Finkel makes clear, was not trying to live off the land or become ruggedly self-sufficient. He felt terribly about it, but he depended on thievery to eat, to warm his campsite, to clothe himself, and to keep himself entertained, especially during the long winter months when he did not leave his campsite. This was not the sort of experiment in survivalism that it’s so popular in our culture to romanticize, and it was not an effort to learn more about the natural world through deep immersion. It doesn’t seem to have been an overtly political act, though Finkel muses (and I find this hypothesis most compelling, personally) that there was implicit rejection of the politics of living in America in the twentieth (and twenty-first) centuries. Knight was hesitant to give anyone, even Finkel, a direct explanation of why he did what he did, so all Finkel could do, really, was guess. He writes:
“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” (122).
I had a lot of time off work in April. My boyfriend traded his overtime shifts to a coworker in exchange for giving his coworker a ride home at four in the morning, every day during the week I read The Stranger in the Woods. I read most of the book late at night, sitting up on the couch with my boyfriend while he played videogames. When it was time for him to go pick up his coworker, I would go along for the ride, telling him about the book, the new things I was learning about silence and solitude, and I’d watch the miles of farmland we drove through unwind out the window. I studied the scarce beacons of light, a lit-up farmhouse window appearing every few miles, and I thought about how scary but also liberating it would be just to live, in a house and with a family, in such relative isolation. I thought about Chris Knight in perfect isolation, no one knowing where he was, no one desire to have anyone help him if he needed it, no desire to share his experiences with anyone.
I find it easy to imagine a good life with limited human contact, but it’s less easy for me to imagine no desire to share experiences or needs with anyone. The importance, I think, of Chris Knight’s story isn’t as it could function as a blueprint, but how it can act as a catalyst for reexamining the assumptions Western culture urges us toward about the roles others should play in our lives, the purpose of time spent with them, the prices we pay for the luxuries we take. I’ll be thinking about—and recommending—this book for a long time. 5/5.