Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Caging a Panther: Michael Finkel's Stranger in the Woods

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,   
has grown so weary that it cannot hold 
anything else. It seems to him there are 
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world. 

- Rainer Maria Rilke, "The Panther" (translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Beginning in the late 1980's, 20-year-old Maine resident Christopher Knight did something unthinkable - both because of how inconceivable and difficult it was, and how bananas-illegal. Knight drove into the Maine wilderness and left society completely - well, mostly - behind. Spending the next 25 years in a small encampment in the Maine woods, Knight survived not by hunting or farming but by pilfering supplies from a nearby summer camp and surrounding community. He was seen by only a handful of people during that time, although the "Hermit" became the stuff of local legend. His own family had no idea where he was or if he was even still alive. He's the subject of Michael Finkel's 2017 nonfiction book Stranger in the Woods, which took me almost 18 months to get around to reading, and several months since I finished to write about. ("Better Late Than Never" is a title I take to heart.)

If you happen to believe that the letter of the law is sacrosanct, you might be too offended to get through that opening paragraph. He was a crook, a burglar, a scofflaw, who terrorized a community for decades, making them feel violated and unsafe in their own homes. He was a parasite and a leech, taking things that belonged to others like food, jeans and batteries, instead of working for them like a good capitalist citizen. I'm not actually all that fascinated by the legal or moral implications of Knight's lifestyle. For his part, throughout the entire book he is remorseful, having lived his entire two previous decades paranoid that he was close to being caught, and knowing he fully deserved whatever punishment was in store for him on that fateful day his number is up. When he is caught at the beginning of the story, he pleads guilty and becomes a model prisoner.

Knight is spoken of with a miz of reverence and fear from those in the communities he targeted - sometimes in the same speaker. Even the police had a certain respect as they doggedly pusued him as a sort of unknown nemesis. They thought he was brazen, calm, cool and collected - in reality, he was overcome with panic and guilt during each of his crimes. What a situation to be in: to be someone who pathologically respects the law yet prefers an existence where he must constantly commit crimes in order to survive.

What fascinates me is the complete inability of the world to process this quixotic, quirky story. People demand explanations, the hows and whys, and are inevitably disappointed by them. There would seem to be no tragic backstory to Knight's departure from human society. To grand breaking point. He simply decided, almost on a whim but a very firm one, that this was how he preferred to live his life. This decision is described as occurring more or less at the same time as the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster, but not because of it - that's really more a coincidence, a notable news story he remembers hearing on the radio shortly before his departure.

Similarly, people can't seem to cope with how Knight spent his time in the woods. Solitude is supposed to break the human spirit, but most of our studies of solitude (as described by Finkel) are of the forced variety - solitary confinement in prison, being lost at sea. Historical hermits, he also describes as being traditionally philosophical and sociable - they tend to take up residence on the fringe of a community that can seek his or her guidance and insight, and provide them with the care and comfort we expect as humans. Knight never sought human company once in all those years, and he certainly never spent a moment trying to philosophize. He was just living, as we all did. Putting in the work to keep up his home (such as it was) developing familiarity with the surrounding environment and survival techniques. It was no different from the rest of us having our day jobs, as far as I'm concerned. And then he found time to listen to the radio (classical music, news, Lynyrd Skynyrd), read (seemingly anything, although he hated John Grisham), play Game Boy (he liked Tetris... and Pokemon!) And just generally sit around and enjoy the sounds of nature.

It honestly all sounds like an ideal existence, albeit one that, by necessity existed outside the bounds of what we consider "the law." I felt envious of Knight for conceptualizing his best life and then pursuing it with gusto. I like to be alone sometimes, but I also like hot food, sleeping in a bed, and indoor plumbing. I'm very fond of my fiancee as well, so dropping off the face of the Earth is not in the cards for me.

The book is an effective character study. Although there is no sweeping incident that leads to Knight's lifestyle change, it effectively paints a portrait of the man who would live his life in such a way - impatient with the bullshit of everyday life (my words not his), eccentric but staid and resolute in many of his opinions, which largely amounted to modern life being just too complicated, and unnecessarily so. A fine contradiction then that he created a life with its own complications and risks, but ones he was prepared to take on.

I admire Knight. He seems like a nice man, and he would have made a great subject for a mid-80s R.E.M. song. It would have really been something if he had been able to live out the entire rest of his life, leaving only his remains and his camp for people to deduce exactly what he was about (Knight wrote down not a single word during his time -- no manifesto, no guide to life, not even a daily itinierary.) I also admire Finkel, who records Knight's story in what I have to believe is an honest, faithful, and understanding way, doing his level best to understand this human enigma, and to broach the questions we all must have.

I came away feeling sad for the story's conclusion, but that was the only way it could play out. But, you know, as happy as I've been in my life, Chris Knight was probably a lot happier than any of us could imagine ourselves being during his 24 years in the woods.

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