Christopher Knight spent 27 years alone in the central Maine woods before his arrest on burglary charges in 2013. Photo by Andy Molloy/Staff Photographer

How did Christopher Knight, Maine’s famous “North Pond Hermit,” deal with 27 years of total isolation in the woods when most of us are going stir-crazy after a few weeks of not leaving the house?

He embraced it. He loved every minute of it. After all, it was his idea to walk into the central Maine woods one day in 1986, at the age of 20. Growing up in the small town of Albion, he always found dealing with people difficult, and later told a journalist that he felt completely content being completely alone.

During this time of sudden social isolation amid a world-wide pandemic, most Americans find themselves more physically removed from other people than they’ve ever been. So there may be lessons to be learned, and perspective to be gained, from the experiences of those who survived, even thrived, in isolation. These five Mainers experienced isolation in varying degrees and coped in various ways, similar to what’s happening now.

Knight willingly decided to spend time in complete isolation. Twelve-year-old Donn Fendler, whose nine-day struggle to survive alone in the woods was chronicled in the book “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” did not. Astronaut Jessica Meir, originally from Caribou, just spent six months in space as part of her job and had the full force of NASA supporting her. Burt Shavitz, the face of the Burt’s Bees personal care products, chose to live alone in a converted turkey coop in rural Maine, even though he could afford better. Art and Nan Kellam – subjects of the 2010 book “We Were an Island” – spent 36 years on an island near Acadia National Park with no electricity or telephone, seeking a simpler life.

NAMELESS AND FREE

Knight did some of the same things we all do in isolation, according to Michael Finkel, who interviewed Knight for the 2017 book “The Stranger in the Woods.” He listened to the radio and occasionally meditated. He read a lot of books. He went out for groceries by breaking into nearby vacation camps, which is also where he got the books. He spent a lot of time letting his thoughts run free, not focusing on his own situation or himself.

“With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant,” Knight told Finkel. “I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”

Donn Fendler at his Newport home in 2014. Photo by Ryan Cook

Knight didn’t leave the woods until he was arrested in 2013 in the central Maine town of Rome. He served seven months in jail on multiple burglary and theft charges, the remainder of a five-year sentence suspended. Knight could not be contacted for this story. When Finkel asked Knight once if he had gained any “grand insight” about life during all his time alone, he said, “Get enough sleep.”

FOCUSED AND FEARLESS

Fendler’s routines in isolation included praying, talking to chipmunks and imagining fun things he’d do again some day, like fishing with his brothers. Fendler, who died in 2016 at the age of 90, grew up in New York but spent summers in Maine. He told friends that, during his odyssey, he found strength in focusing sharply on the next task at hand. It could be as small as the search for a handful of berries to eat, finding a tree root to serve as a shelter or trying to walk 100 more yards before collapsing of exhaustion.

Another thing that helped Fendler was that he did not consider the grim overview of his situation – something a lot of people now are doing. When he became separated from friends and family on a July day in 1939, in the middle of a storm, he had no idea how big the Maine woods were. He told friends he never once thought he could die there. He walked 48 miles and lost 16 pounds during his nine-day ordeal before finally being found, at a hunting camp.

“He was a 12-year-old kid, and he always said he didn’t realize how serious and life-threatening his situation was when he was lost,” said Maine author Lynn Plourde, who collaborated with Fendler on the 2011 book “Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness.”

 

Caribou native Jessica Meir has been living in the International Space Station for the past six months. Photo courtesy of NASA

KEEPING A ROUTINE

Meir was probably the most prepared for her time in isolation, having been selected by NASA to start training as an astronaut in 2013. During her six months on the International Space Station – she returned Friday – she did many of the things we all do now. She said during teleconferences with reporters that weekly video chats with loved ones helped her remain upbeat and gave her something to look forward to. She also talked about how regular exercise – using equipment designed for space – helped keep her mind and body sharp. She posted on Twitter some advice about dealing with isolation, including sticking to familiar routines like washing your hair and brushing your teeth to maintain a sense of normalcy.

Art and Nan Kellam in their dory. Nancy Rigdon Photo

KIND OF A BIG DEAL

The lesson from the Kellams’ experience may be in the strength they gained from each other. Prompted by the horrors of World War II and fearful of what the world was becoming, they left Los Angeles in 1949 and built a simple house on Placentia Island, two miles off Mount Desert.

They methodically and consciously built a world that revolved only around each other, said Jahn Sood, screenwriter of the 2019 film “We Were An Island,” based on the couple. They made seemingly small things, like trimming trees or listening to an opera, into big events, something to plan and look forward to, Sood said. They had a dory and rowed to the mainland sometimes for supplies, but were mostly alone for 36 years. Art died in 1985, Nan in 2001.

 

Burt Shavitz outside his cabin in Parkman. Photo by Jody Shapiro

HAVE A GOOD DAY

Shavitz, who died in 2015 at the age of 80, loved his solitude and space. But he also seemed comfortable moving from isolation to the hectic pace of the wider world once in a while, something many of us would like to do right now. When he was heavily involved with the company that bore his name, he enjoyed traveling the world to promote the products, said Jody Shapiro, director of the 2013 documentary film on Shavitz, “Burt’s Buzz.” The company had grown out of Shavitz’s beekeeping operation.

But even after selling his one-third interest in the company for a reported $130,000 in 1994 to his partner Roxanne Quimby – the driving force behind the company’s success – he chose to live in a 400-square-foot converted turkey coop on 40 acres in Parkman, about 50 miles north of Waterville, with no hot water or television, Shapiro said. He listened to his radio, went to bed when the sun set and got up when the sun rose, Shapiro said.

“He told me that a good day was when nobody shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere,” Shapiro said of Shavitz. By that measure, we’re all having some very good days.


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