Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

I consider myself more of a solitary person than one who has to be in the midst of people all of the time, but I certainly can't imagine living by myself in the woods for 27 years and avoiding any human contact. That's just what Christopher Knight did when, at age 20, he parked his car, left his keys on the console, and with little more than the clothes on his back and a tent, walked into the Maine woods. 

He never contacted his family, and until he was caught stealing from a camp in 2013, he lived a solitary life in a camp secluded enough that no one ever found it, but only a few miles away from popular lakes and cabins that had plenty of people around during the Maine summer months. He survived by breaking into cabins and stealing food, clothing, supplies, and propane tanks to melt snow for water. He took books and spent all of his time sitting still in his camp, reading and listening to the radio with headphones. His desire to be alone wasn't caused by mental issues; Christopher found himself most happy and alive living a solitary existence in nature. Some call him a hermit; others a thief. Some question his mental stability; others recognize in Christopher his deep introversion and inability to live in a world full of chaos and noise. We all seek those times of solitude in order to think, clear our brains, and recharge our batteries. Studies have shown spending even a short time outside in the woods can calm our blood pressure, relax our minds, and infuse us with a sense of wellbeing and peace. For Christopher, it was essential to his survival; even the hardest of times during the winter contributed to his sense of satisfaction and contentment. 

I found this a fascinating tale, written by a man who visited Christopher in jail and before he was taken to court. Michael Finkel's attempt at understanding Christopher's life in the woods was pretty satisfying to me; surrounding his tale with some of the history of hermits, anchorites, and others who chose to live a solitary existence throughout history. It helped frame the extraordinary tale of Christopher. And it is extraordinary, that this man walked away from one life and created another by sheer hard work and determination.

 Reading this book reminded me of the importance of solitude. I certainly feel after a day of being surrounded by people: the noise, the personalities, the emotions; that coming home to a quiet house becomes increasingly necessary for me to balance myself. Luckily, my partner feels the same way, and is a man who finds his sense of self and extreme peace in the quiet of the woods, away from people. It literally recharges his mental batteries; I've seen the change in him time and again after a day spent by himself in nature. I think for me, reading quietly at home is my own escape that refreshes me and is a balm to my soul. It helps prepare me to put on my "game face" and walk back into my everyday busy world. 

This is a short book, and quick to read. I had to check online to make sure Christopher is still alive and well, and he is, but I have to wonder if he is happy living again around people. I can only imagine his grief at losing that solitary existence. 

Rating:  5/6 for a intriguing look at one man's desire to live a life of solitude, and an author's attempt to understand the driving force behind that desire. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. 

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