Beowulf is one of the most pervasive stories in our written history (in the Western canon, at least). In fact, it is believed to be one of the oldest stories that was written down. And, its pervasiveness tells us something about the importance of the community during this time period (as does the work of the Pearl Poet and several other unknown early authors). This story brings to mind strong themes about community, customs, and leadership. Recently, I came across the story of Christopher Knight and became slightly obessed. How a man could go against these long-lasting desires of humans to communicate, to live together, and to be in the world as units (whether it be a family unit, a mead hall, and beyond). Why did this man drive into the woods and never leave?
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I want to start with a little background on Christopher Knight, and you can read more at the links above. He was born in 1965, and grew up in a relatively normal middle-class family in Massachusetts. Although he notes his parents were not over emotional or talkative, there were no signs of abuse or misconduct on their part. In fact, in more than one interview he shifts his reason for hermitage off his parents and often even calls them good parents. He also got along fine with his brothers, although when they visited him in jail almost 30 years after seeing him, they said they didn't recognize him. In high school he was noted as having good grades, but little-to-no social life and barely any friends, if any. He graduated early and, like one of his older brothers, took a 9-month course at a technical school in Waltham, Massachusetts and shortly thereafter got a job he took a job installing home and vehicle alarm system.
The only strange thing about his family? They never reported him missing. It is suspected that they hired at least one private investigator, but no report was ever made to the police.
However, the lack of report isn't wholly bizarre. Knight drove to Maine in 1986 at the age of 20, and never returned. At this point, he was a grown(ish) adult and perhaps his parents and family figured he deserved and/or wanted privacy. They speculated that he likely went to Texas and/or the Rocky Mountains...for reasons I'm still not clear on.
It was a late summer day in 1986 when he made the long drive from Massachusetts to Maine, driving, not knowing exactly where he wanted to go, until he was out of gas. In an extensive interview with GQ he said, "I drove until I was nearly out of gas. I took a small road. Then a small road off that small road. Then a trail off that." He parked the car. He placed the keys in the center console. "I had a backpack and minimal stuff. I had no plans. I had no map. I didn’t know where I was going. I just walked away."
Because it was still summer and relatively warm out, Knight didn't have to worry too much about food and shelter. He largely foraged for food, including eating roadkill, during these first few weeks alone. However, he soon began craving vegetables and other foods that he missed from home. This is when the stealing began. Although, he notes, he always felt bad about the stealing. By the time he was caught in 2013, he would have committed roughly 1,000 burglaries (he committed about 40 peryear). He was even more scared, interestingly enough, because he did not want to get caught and taken back to society.
Although he fled from society, modernity, community...it was what allowed him to thrive during his time as a hermit.
He roamed the woods for two years, but finally found the perfect place for his campsite, and where he would spend the next 25-years at in peaceful solitude. He only re-entered society in the dead of night, usually around 1 or 2am, to steal what he could.
And he didn't just steal food, no, his collection was impressive: he had a box spring mattress, books, pillows, countless propane tanks, disposable razors, a radio, alcohol, laundry detergent, and more. Although he lived in the woods, he still survived off of modern inventions and commodities. In fact, he had so much stuff that, in the event any one ever approached his camp, he had a go-bag and enough inventory hidden in a nearby cave that he could start anew without too much strife.
In 2013, he was caught and taken to trial. He served a sentence of 7-months in jail and then released. However, his release would be dependent on him staying in society and either keeping a job or continuing his education. I find that this is one of the worst punishments to give a hermit- of-volition - they must return to society and they can never seek the asylum of nature, for an extended time period at least. At the end of his sentence, and countless hours interviewed by GQ journalist, Michael Finkel, he told him-after being asked countless times-why he disappeared. He left because he felt content in the woods in a way he did not feel content in society. He braved harsh winters, contemplated suicide, and acted as a thief for almost 30 years just for the feeling of contentedness.
This makes him an interesting figure. Why? Well, most hermits can be categorized into three types: protesters, pilgrims, and pursuers. Protesters are leaving society for "x" reason, pilgrims leave for a religious journey, and pursuers leave to find higher knowledge or truth for art, writing, or other studies. But Knight doesn't fit cleanly into any of these - his quest for contentedness was not recorded by himself, he kept no journals or video diaries or anything of the like. He does not consider himself religious. And, well, he didn't have that many issues with society at large.
Knight is a person who did not feel content around other people. Painfully shy for most of his life, he found social interactions inextricably complicated and, largely, unfruitful. So he left. He was not comforted by people, only what they produced. And herein lies what is truly fascinating about Knight: was he an outlier of the human race? As mentioned earlier, the need for human interaction for security, well-being, success, creativity, and relationship-building have been present for thousands of years. So, how and why did Knight reject something so wholly that one would think would be engrained in his nature?
He just did not fit in. He did not feel at peace in the world. So, he went and found his own piece of the world (although, it was, technically, on private property) and made his peace there.
Does this make him crazy? an outlier? a person of interest? or just a person?
These questions have been plaguing me for days and I think the answer is...just a person. Some people's happiest places are with family at the dinner table, others at the beach with a good book, and some at a coffee-shop buzzing with activity. Why can't Knight's be in the woods, alone. Is it really any stranger than the rest of us? Or, perhaps, he was just brave enough to do what he wanted.
The above image comes from Flickr user Simon Gehrig, and is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0. It is unrelated to the above story.