May 21, 2017

21 05 2017

I am listening to an audiobook called The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, about a man who, at the age of twenty, left his home in Massachusetts and disappeared into the Maine woods. He did not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later when he was caught and arrested for breaking and entering to steal food. Christopher Knight lived in a small, superbly secluded camp, emerging only to go on midnight raids for the supplies he needed to survive. These supplies, by the way, included books.

It’s a true story, and the author tells the story well, going into biographical and psychological details, interviewing people in the area and the police who caught him. He befriended Knight and got him to talk about himself and his experience. Finkel visited Knight’s campsite and describes the ingenious methods the man used to survive.

The story combines several elements that interest me: camping alone in the woods, solitude, and the psychology of someone who simply doesn’t need or want human contact. Ordinarily, human beings hate being alone. It is the worst form of torture we inflict on our prisoners. The United Nations has condemned solitary confinement as cruel, inhumane. And yet, this is what Knight chose. Even though he sometimes suffered terribly in the cold of winter, or from hunger, or both, he preferred this to returning to human society.

In the book, the author reports that very few people go more and a few hours without human contact of some kind. Most never go more than twenty-four hours. I thought back to my multi-day solo hikes. When I did the Grafton Notch loop there was a stretch of at least 48 hours when I didn’t see a soul. Perhaps it was longer. I recall passing one or two groups of hikers with whom I exchanged small talk, but I think that was just on the first day. Most of the time I saw no one. It was wonderful.

We are evolved to be a social, cooperative species. We managed to survive in a harsh environment by working together in groups. And yet, over the course of history, there have always been those who preferred solitude. Hermits, holy people, those who leave human commotion to go into the mountains, the deserts, the woods, hide themselves away in cells and caves, in order to find peace. Such solitude is the means to enlightenment, the way to the center.

What Knight experienced in his solitude was just the sort of enlightenment spiritual people talk about, that disappearance of self, the dissolving of the ego. He was never bored. Contemplation was his primary pastime, along with reading and the daily business of maintaining his simple existence. His way of life was the complete antithesis of our hyperconnected, intensely busy lives, where success is judged by achievement and how much accomplishment can be packed into our waking hours. We shun suffering and pursue happiness with dogged obsession. Knight accepted suffering—from cold or hunger, or the stress and guilt of having to steal to survive, the terror of being caught—as just part of life. It made the times of peace and contentment all the more sweet.

It occurs to me as I write that there are many in our society, the ones who praise self-sufficiency and scorn those who depend on others, would admire Knight. He solved his own problems, took care of himself, relied on no one to help him. But they overlook the stark fact that Knight could not have survived if it weren’t for other people. He could not have fed and sheltered himself without the help of others. That help was stolen, not given freely. But help it was. Even the hermits of the caves and deserts had food brought to them by others. They were not completely independent.

We need each other to survive. Social cooperation enhances our lives. It benefits us materially and psychologically. We experience mental and emotional distress when isolated from our fellow human beings.

Or at least, most of us do. Knight didn’t. And many of us can relate. Social can be difficult. Alone is easier. Perhaps we cannot live without other human beings, but we need a break from them. How much of a break depends on the individual. I can happily go several days without human contact. Perhaps even longer; I’ve never had the opportunity to find out. Being with people is a mixed bag for me. In general, it is always an effort, trying to think of what to say, trying to figure out what the other person expects. I am most comfortable in scripted situations, business transactions, interactions where what the other person expects and what I am supposed to do or say is clear.

Even being with people whose company I enjoy can be stressful. The pleasure of being with them is balanced against the constant effort I have to put into it. My earliest use of alcohol and marijuana were a way to reduce the anxiety of performing socially. I always experience a sense of relief when I am alone again, as well as a sense of accomplishment: Good, I got through that encounter successfully.

I hope my friends understand that this in no way means I don’t value their friendship. I envy those for whom social situations are pleasant and easy, and conversation flows effortlessly. It’s why social media, where interaction is mostly written, appeals to me so much more than face time. With an email or a post or exchange of comments, I can think over what to say, get it right, take my time. Much less pressure. I can be social while being alone.

Thinking about my solo hikes and how much I enjoyed the prolonged solitude has inspired me to plan another. It will be logistically difficult to arrange to have several days strung together without obligations. And I can’t really monopolize a vehicle for that long. Our household has four drivers and three cars, and wildly varying schedules. For me to disappear into the mountains for a few days with one of the cars would be a hardship for them. Still, I can plan and imagine. It is a pleasure to think about. In the meantime, I can find quiet moments of solitude here, in the early mornings, in the garden, in my room. Long walks in the woods close to home.





3 responses

21 05 2017
Mary Jolles

I just returned from a full day happily sitting in the woods by myself taking pictures, digging up botanical specimens, and writing notes. I’m a pretty gregarious person but I do love a day alone in the woods! I have some suggestions for you for that multi-day hike you’re thinking of.

21 05 2017

I had a friend suggest the Crawford/Ridgepole Trail which crosses Doublehead, Squam, Percival, et. al. It’s about 13 miles, and the fellow I talked to said there are lots of places to pitch a tent along the way. It’s far enough south that it wouldn’t be too much of a drive for someone to drop me off and pick me up. And he said when he did it he did not see a soul.

But please, I’d be delighted to hear your suggestions. You know the trails so much better than I do.

22 05 2017

Oh that is so coincidental! Just started it this morning, so I didn’t read the post (I’ve heard of him, but I hate spoilers).

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