As Henry David Thoreau recalled it in his 1854 book “Walden,” going off to reside in the woods was a way to focus the mind — “to live so sturdily and Spartan-like,” he wrote, “as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close.” But for the modern-day hermit, it seems, life in the woods involves very little swath-cutting and a whole lot of breaking and entering.
The Globe’s Brian MacQuarrie reported recently on Christopher Knight, a 47-year-old who lived alone in the forest in Rome, Maine, from 1986 until his arrest in April. Over the years, Knight never physically harmed anyone, authorities say, but survived by stealing supplies, books, and even celebrity magazines from nearby cabins; police caught him, they say, when he was taking food from a camp for people with disabilities.
Even so, it’s possible to romanticize this solitary life — to place Knight in a long line of legendary religious and literary recluses. A group of Maine musicians has put together a CD of songs inspired by the so-called North Pond hermit. After visiting Knight’s encampment, an aspiring filmmaker who’s working on a documentary about Knight told a local newspaper, “It’s a place where you activate your imagination.”
Yet it was also a place replete with purloined clothing, propane tanks, sleeping bags, and other goods; upon his arrest, police maintain, Knight said his eyeglasses were the only possession that was his. The sheer amount of theft that’s necessary to survive in the woods was deeply unnerving to those who live or vacation around North Pond. Even locals who were sympathetic to a hungry man, and who appreciated the pains he took not to cause damage, were unhappy with being repeatedly burglarized over the course of 27 years.
For now, the criminal case against Knight is on hold, pending a detailed mental evaluation. That’s only reasonable, for the singular visions and quirks of character that compelled yesteryear’s hermits sound today like diagnosable psychological afflictions. Especially in the years since Knight disappeared into the forest — a period during which pharmaceutical firms began touting drugs to treat extremes of shyness — the notion that an emotionally healthy man would just want to be alone for a quarter of a century has come to seem preposterous.
Indeed, Knight’s 27-year-long seclusion seems extreme by the standards of any era. Thoreau, in contrast, lived in his cabin outside Concord for a mere two years, during which the great transcendentalist played host to many visitors.
There was one other important difference: “I went to the woods. . . to front only the essential facts of life,” Thoreau wrote. Knight didn’t know whether his parents were alive. But he did know — inevitably — about the Kardashians.