[We never stop to reflect on the solitude that comes with the anonymity of living in the modern city, but we cannot stop from judging the solitude of living close to nature ‘far from the maddening crowd.’ Well, Michele Benoit (JC) has given us a chance here to reflect upon both. Enjoy her offering in the swirl of chaos surrounding us – kC]
Hermits fascinate us. Our voyeurism goes apoplectic and we want to know every detail of how this bizarre soul lived. Human’s equal and opposite reaction, eh?
We also love a great story and to make myth. One that comes out of the remote woods of Maine is the North Pond Hermit. Seems this fellow stepped out of society and stayed there, for 27 years. By public accounts, Christopher Knight, the aforementioned hermit, disappeared into the woods when he was 20 years old, and only emerged when he was arrested for a break-in at a local camp–something he admits he did over 1000 times during his solitary life, to gather food, clothing, and other necessities to live.
People knew that somebody was out there. Rumors swirled for years and had taken on near mythological status among locals, including the officer who arrested him. The burglaries were so regular that some camp owners left notes, asking what he needed, so he wouldn’t have to break in.
Media attention exploded. This local story was picked up by the BBC, Huffington Post and others. Who was this man? How did he survive? Why did he step out? Online theories ran rampant. Our curiosity was piqued. We were enthralled. He’s received a marriage proposal while in jail, and a stranger offered to pay his bail. Knight now even has his own ballad: The North Pond Hermit.
Hermits have existed everywhere and in all times, well before religious rules codified the cells of monks. The word itself means “person of the desert,” from the Greek, eremia “desert, solitude,” from eremos “uninhabited, empty, desolate”. Some, like St. Cyriacus, sought solitude to live a ‘more pure and saintly life.” Others, like the Lykov family, retreated deep into the wilds of Siberia to escape religious persecution, and simply stayed.
America hosts two kinds of hermits. The first is the celebrity who steps out of the limelight. Think J.D. Salinger, Howard Hughes, Bobby Fischer, and Michael Jackson. They range from the eccentric to the crotchety to, in Jackson’s case, perversely bizarre. They’re there and then they’re gone. We can’t grasp why they’d want to disappear, to give up the glory and and game, and so we pry. We intrude. Telephoto lenses, visitors under false pretense, acolytes seeking the master.
The other is the unknown who is discovered. Prime example? Ted Kaczynski. Apparently, he lived alone in a cabin with no electricity or water in Montana, for a 25 years before he was arrested. When later asked about how he felt about being in prison, he said,
What worries me is that I might in a sense adapt to this environment and come to be comfortable here and not resent it anymore. And I am afraid that as the years go by that I may forget, I may begin to lose my memories of the mountains and the woods and that’s what really worries me, that I might lose those memories, and lose that sense of contact with wild nature in general. But I am not afraid they are going to break my spirit.
Some view hermits as shamanistic heroes, in the sense that Joseph Campbell describes,
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces)
Indeed, shamans often lived apart from the main community, to better stay connected to the energies and realms that others could not fathom.
The Hermit in the Tarot reflects this aspect. The Hermit “represents the desire to turn away from the getting and spending of society to focus on the inner world. He seeks answers within and knows that they will come only with quiet and solitude.”
Today, hermits are thought unbalanced, out of kilter, a little whacky. Before anything was known about Christopher Knight, there were assumption of mental illness, predictions that a trauma drove him to the woods. The Huffington Post ran the story under “Weird News”. What sane person would choose to live with virtually no human contact or creature comforts??
Is the guy nuts? Who knows. His photo shows a man with bad glasses–stolen–but not with crazy eyes. He’s neat and clean-shaven–not the unkempt look we typically associate with backwoods living. Yet, without ever meeting the man, without hearing his statements, here’s what a psych professor at Boston College concluded:
‘Thirty years without talking to somebody? I don’t know,’ Tecce said. ‘I think he bumped into folks now and then, maybe a few other Christophers. Christopher 2, Christopher 3, Christopher 4, we don’t know.’
Or from another enlightened prof, this one from BU:
Withdrawing from society as an adolescent and avoiding human contact for decades, as Knight did, would almost surely stunt development…
said Todd Farchione, a research assistant professor in the psychology department at Boston University.
He might have knowledge, but he’s not going to know what it feels like to lose his first job or lose his first love, or make a mistake or suffer the pain that comes with living. He has not been living in many respects, not in a normal, socially acceptable way.
Ignoring the possibility that by age 20, Knight could easily have lost his first job or first love, Farchione assumes that the only experiences that matter, that are really ‘living’ are those that fall within the very narrow dictates of modern culture. He gives no value to the ‘living’ Knight most definitely did: carefully observing nature, and, by his own account, meditating, reading, and watching the sky. Farchione worries me far more than Knight, for his proclamations and for assuming that there is only one socially acceptable way to live.
What Farchione and most Americans don’t realize is that they are the cases of arrested development. Modern western culture, with its gadgets and gizmos, its electronics, cars, and subdivided subdivisions of living, has thrust us into uneasy isolation, but not given us any solitude. Our isolation does not come with wisdom, reflection, or insight. We are insulated by cacophony, unable to realize our own thoughts, unaware of our own physicality except in the most basic sense.
We are distanced from each other in a thousand ways, as hermetically sealed as the shrink-wrapped organic cabbage at the grocery store. Only under extreme conditions–like the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings–do we break through out plastic coats to actually touch each other. It’s already a FB meme, but people, ordinary people, did run toward the explosions. Strangers helped strangers, turned shirts and belts into tourniquets, comforted the injured, with no idea of what other danger waited.
Life, disrupted, became life fully in the moment. But just a few days after lockdown and the most impressive roll out of personnel and equipment any of us have seen, the experience is already repackaged, dissected, analyzed, memed, until we are back where we started. We re-enter the hermitage and don’t even hear the doors clang shut behind us.
And the North Pond Hermit? He remains in jail, allegedly a model prisoner, more charges added, and his bail raised–not because he’s a flight risk (He admits he has nowhere to go.) but to ‘protect him from exploitation.’ His camp? Dismantled. No family member has visited (Indeed, none ever filed a missing person’s report.). After jail, how does he return?