On April 4, 2013, a thief was arrested in a summer camp in Maine without putting up any resistance. The man had entered the camp to steal candy, potato chips, frozen meat, cheese, bacon and propane tanks. The locks were carefully removed, without prints: a professional job. One of the camp’s directors had had a sophisticated movement sensor installed in the kitchen that triggered an alarm he received at home. Without hesitating, he called the police.

Was this the ghost that had cleaned out North Pond’s cellars for at least the past three decades? Men tell stories of when, as children, their Halloween candy would disappear over night. The thief had no ID on him; after recovering from the fright, he revealed his name: “Christopher Thomas Knight”. No database came up with any current information: no address, no bank account and no tax return. Just an old reference in a local school’s yearbook. Born on December 7, 1965; he was 47 years old when he was arrested.

Where did he live? “In the woods”, he answered. Since when? Knight was pensive. He asked the officers when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had been. 1968. “Well, since then,” he said.

He never lit a fire in fear that the smoke would give away his location. He slept in a tent and he adapted an area of the forest to live there. Unlike Thoreau (whom he refers to as a “dilettante”), Christopher Knight was an introvert committed to his solitude, who since his twenties had mainly lived off of junk food which he stole from local homes, wearing stolen clothes, entering houses at night, scared to death of being caught without ever having made a phone call, without driving a car, without spending a single cent and without using the Internet.

GQ Magazine reporter Michael Finkel wrote several letters to Knight while he was waiting for his sentence (for his violence-free robberies, for his persistence of lonesome habits and unsociability?), and eventually Knight agreed to a visit.

Some people want me to be this warm and fuzzy person. All filled with friendly hermit wisdom. Just spouting off fortune-cookie lines from my hermit home.

For the reporter it was clear that Knight was none of those things, but, doubtless, there was some wisdom in him. Or at the very least there was a story.

His story, however, at least the one Knight was capable of telling on his own, was reduced to a five word language, directed especially to the security guards in prison: yes; no; please; thank you. According to him, even people’s faces seemed threatening: “I’m not used to seeing people’s faces,” he said. “There’s too much information there. Aren’t you aware of it? Too much, too fast.”

For Knight, the speed of information is given by the velocity of attention. The reporter tells how Knight would lovingly speak of a mushroom that grew in a tree near his shelter. For years he could see how it grew and matured, to the degree that he asked the reporter (when he found out he had visited his home) if the mushroom was still there. It was.

This particularity of attention is what differentiates his experience of social rebellion from the expectations that are culturally associated with hermits: he did not go to the forest in search of a mystical knowledge or an initiation ritual; he simply could not find his place in the company of others and decided to build it on his own, on his own terms. That is why Knight asserts that true hermits do not write books, have friends or answer questions. They do not accept disciples either, nor do they keep a journal. “I expected to die out there. Who would read my journal? You? I’d rather take it to my grave.”

After an intricate legal process (since the nature of his crimes is not “simply” burglary, but a way of life foreign from every convened social norm), Chris Knight was sentenced to spend a handful of months in jail, and he was also warned that he had to find a job or go to school; if he returned to the forest, and therefore to stealing, he would be sentenced to spend up to seven years in jail. In reality we can see that he has been condemned to society: the social world is a prison to Chris, who during his many years in the forest only came across one person, a hitchhiker. The only thing he said was “Hello”.

Before the journalist’s insistence to give some sort of initiation lesson about his days in the woods, his life or the human condition, Chris admitted he had little to say. It seems that he would hate to see himself as a guru, but surviving in those conditions for such a long time is something that not even the most experienced and prepared camper would be able to do. He concluded as follows:

I did examine myself. Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.

On April 4, 2013, a thief was arrested in a summer camp in Maine without putting up any resistance. The man had entered the camp to steal candy, potato chips, frozen meat, cheese, bacon and propane tanks. The locks were carefully removed, without prints: a professional job. One of the camp’s directors had had a sophisticated movement sensor installed in the kitchen that triggered an alarm he received at home. Without hesitating, he called the police.

Was this the ghost that had cleaned out North Pond’s cellars for at least the past three decades? Men tell stories of when, as children, their Halloween candy would disappear over night. The thief had no ID on him; after recovering from the fright, he revealed his name: “Christopher Thomas Knight”. No database came up with any current information: no address, no bank account and no tax return. Just an old reference in a local school’s yearbook. Born on December 7, 1965; he was 47 years old when he was arrested.

Where did he live? “In the woods”, he answered. Since when? Knight was pensive. He asked the officers when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had been. 1968. “Well, since then,” he said.

He never lit a fire in fear that the smoke would give away his location. He slept in a tent and he adapted an area of the forest to live there. Unlike Thoreau (whom he refers to as a “dilettante”), Christopher Knight was an introvert committed to his solitude, who since his twenties had mainly lived off of junk food which he stole from local homes, wearing stolen clothes, entering houses at night, scared to death of being caught without ever having made a phone call, without driving a car, without spending a single cent and without using the Internet.

GQ Magazine reporter Michael Finkel wrote several letters to Knight while he was waiting for his sentence (for his violence-free robberies, for his persistence of lonesome habits and unsociability?), and eventually Knight agreed to a visit.

Some people want me to be this warm and fuzzy person. All filled with friendly hermit wisdom. Just spouting off fortune-cookie lines from my hermit home.

For the reporter it was clear that Knight was none of those things, but, doubtless, there was some wisdom in him. Or at the very least there was a story.

His story, however, at least the one Knight was capable of telling on his own, was reduced to a five word language, directed especially to the security guards in prison: yes; no; please; thank you. According to him, even people’s faces seemed threatening: “I’m not used to seeing people’s faces,” he said. “There’s too much information there. Aren’t you aware of it? Too much, too fast.”

For Knight, the speed of information is given by the velocity of attention. The reporter tells how Knight would lovingly speak of a mushroom that grew in a tree near his shelter. For years he could see how it grew and matured, to the degree that he asked the reporter (when he found out he had visited his home) if the mushroom was still there. It was.

This particularity of attention is what differentiates his experience of social rebellion from the expectations that are culturally associated with hermits: he did not go to the forest in search of a mystical knowledge or an initiation ritual; he simply could not find his place in the company of others and decided to build it on his own, on his own terms. That is why Knight asserts that true hermits do not write books, have friends or answer questions. They do not accept disciples either, nor do they keep a journal. “I expected to die out there. Who would read my journal? You? I’d rather take it to my grave.”

After an intricate legal process (since the nature of his crimes is not “simply” burglary, but a way of life foreign from every convened social norm), Chris Knight was sentenced to spend a handful of months in jail, and he was also warned that he had to find a job or go to school; if he returned to the forest, and therefore to stealing, he would be sentenced to spend up to seven years in jail. In reality we can see that he has been condemned to society: the social world is a prison to Chris, who during his many years in the forest only came across one person, a hitchhiker. The only thing he said was “Hello”.

Before the journalist’s insistence to give some sort of initiation lesson about his days in the woods, his life or the human condition, Chris admitted he had little to say. It seems that he would hate to see himself as a guru, but surviving in those conditions for such a long time is something that not even the most experienced and prepared camper would be able to do. He concluded as follows:

I did examine myself. Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.

Tagged: ,