Review: The Stranger in the Woods
While we often look for ourselves in the books that we read, or at least the kinds of people we aspire to be (representation matters!), there is a unique delight in exploring the lives of outliers through books. In the case of nonfiction, it can be the best way to open a portal into the mind of an individual, like Christopher Knight- The Hermit of North Pond.
When I saw that “The Stranger in the Woods” was Liberty Hardy’s selection for March’s Book of the Month Club, I was immediately interested. Hardy’s BOTM choices are almost always books I’ve already enjoyed, or books I can’t wait to read. This nonfiction pic was no exception.
The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel
March 7, 2017
In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life--why did he leave? what did he learn?--as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.
What struck me the most while reading this book, beyond the “hows” of Knight survived in the woods for so long, is the idea of quiet, of silence.
Perhaps it’s because, for me, the woods do not offer long term solace. While I’m all for the occasional stroll through the trees (I’m no stranger to the facts on nature and the positive impact on health) I abhor camping. Not because of the dirt and bugs, but because my mom was crushed by a tree while we were out camping when I was a kid.
A microburst swept through our area while we happened to be camping in Chittenango Falls, NY, felling trees like they were toothpicks. One landed on my mom and pinned her to the ground inside our tent. In one of those “too crazy to be true” moments I had enough adrenaline to lift the tree just enough as my mom pushed from underneath to be able to have her scoot out. She was left with a black bruise the size of my face on her hip and limp that flared up for years afterward whenever it was damp.
But I do understand the quest for quiet, and for discovering the peace that comes with being still and solitary. When I look back at all the years I lived in New York City I can see the constant state of agitation in which I lived. There is no true moment of silence in the city, and there is no place in which you aren’t aware to some degree of all the people around you. Even in my employer’s multimillion dollar brownstone, with it’s thick walls and expensive windows, you could feel the occasional rumble of the G train under the house, and think of all the people riding back and forth.
There is a calm in my life now that has everything to do with the kind of quiet I can obtain in my own home on a daily basis.
Knight makes quiet feel like something decadent, and in our modern society, it often is. “Mostly he just wished for quiet- ‘all the quiet I can take, consume, eat, dine upon, savor, relish, feast.’”
Knight admits to feeling a little contempt for those who can’t keep quiet, for those he has no choice to encounter after his stint in the woods is ended. And it’s a contempt I can empathize with. One of my favorite things about attending yoga classes is the quiet, especially the quiet that is usually present before the class begins as everyone readies themselves for practice. But there is a woman frequently in my group who talks right up until the second our instructor tells us to lie down and starts up again the second it’s over. She is incapable of staying in her own stillness.
While I’m too social to be comfortable with the degree of separation Knight imposed between himself and the rest of the world, there is something valuable to be taken away from his experience. Knight’s intelligence is attributed a variety of factors, but one of the most compelling is that he wasn’t “overwhelmed by data,” he didn’t have the complete overload that most of us don’t even recognize that we’re receiving.
Finkel cites an author of a book about brain science sharing that screen time “steadily chips away at one’s ‘capacity for concentration and contemplation.’” A phenomenon that I’ve reflected on more and more over the past year as my addiction to my phone seems to only every increase and my spans of sitting in one place and reading without checking the phone get shorter and shorter.
This is a great book for curious readers, especially those who like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and who like a blend of real life and mild academic exploration.