For reasons not altogether clear to me, I have always been fascinated with hermits. I don’t think that I am alone. This  would explain why the Maine newspapers have given such prominent story play to the arrest of recluse Christopher Knight. Just imagine. The man spent 27 years eking out an existence alone in a patch of woods behind North Pond.

In newsroom parlance, it is truly a man-bites-dog human interest story that hooks us as news consumers and fellow human beings. “Could I do this,” some of us ask ourselves? Could I, an outdoorsman who prides himself on a knowledge of woodcraft and self-sufficiency, survive alone in the Maine woods for 27 years?

Absolutely not. Solitude is good, in doses.One of the reasons I deer hunt is for the solitude. But solitude is a relative thing. That is, it has meaning because it is the exact opposite of hustle and bustle, and the frenetic modern world of stimulus overload that is our daily life. In other words, for solitude to be purely soul-cleansing, at least for me, there has to be something to get away from — and a hot meal to come home to.

If you ask your friends and neighbors for their take on this hermit of North Pond, you’ll get different responses. Some see him as a sort of eccentric folk hero who had the physical and psychologial mettle to remove himself from the rat race: no bills to pay, no traffic jams, no cell phones, no boss, nobody to disagree with.

Others see him through a different prism. Survivalist writer Charlie Reitze from Millinocket doesn’t have much use for Knight. “Knight gives survivalists and true back-to-the-landers a bad name,” insists Reitze. “He stole to survive and he lived in squalor,”  says Reitze.  He writes, “Quite simply put, a survivalist is one who knows how to survive by living off the land naturally. He eats what he can catch. He doesn’t break into camps and steal his supplies. Nor does he spend months or years living off the grid; when that happens, a survivalist become a hermit.”

I know that I shouldn’t, but in my heart of hearts I lean a little toward the folk-hero angle. In Knight’s shoes, I could have probably kept myself alive. But the loneliness would have taken its toll. If reports are accurate, Knight’s condition upon his repatriation doesn’t fit the stereotype. He should have looked the fabled troll who lived under the bridge with a scraggly beard and long greasy hair. His eyes should have told the tale with a faraway fixated gaze. His utterances should have been more disjointed, if not animal like.

Did he really live alone under that piece of plastic for 27 years through the brutal Maine winters with no human contact? How did he keep his sanity? His story, if it is genuine, defies my imagination. His psyche should attract the attention of experts who study human behavior and the capacity of human beings to endure under adverse conditions. Surely, Mr. Knight’s mental toughness trumps even his physical tenacity. He is no Casper Milquetoast, the cartoon character who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick. This may explain the jailed hermit’s recent marriage proposal from an apparent female admirer.

Reitze is right. The hermit of North Pond is a  thief. He stole from others to survive. He is in jail where he deserves to be. Fifty years ago, when many remote camps were deliberately not locked to accommodate lost or desperate wayfarers, Knight might have gotten away with more. Remember the lost hunter of Wilson Pond who broke into camps for food and shelter? He lost some toes to frostbite but was never summonsed for robbery or breaking and entering.

I can guess what you are thinking. Knight is a crook, period. Reynolds is a misguided romanticist who has forgotten what it is like to have your possessions stolen by another. You have a point.

Knight is now a burden to society. He will be processed by the County and imprisoned. That will cost the taxpayers. But for 27 years he was neither a welfare cheat nor a corporate Wall Street huckster.

If only he hadn’t stolen stuff. He really could have been my folk hero.

 

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM  101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected] and his new book is “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook.”



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