Do you think you could live in the woods for 27 years? Would you want to? The fascination with Christopher Knight, who lived a hermit’s life in the small Maine town of Rome, has spread across the country and the world. The BBC and the United Kingdom’s The Telegraph picked up the story; the Huffington Post posted it on its “Weird News” page. Amid the media furor and community discussion, people should not forget the human element of the story. Though Knight allegedly stole from camp owners to survive, his extraordinary circumstances justify a level of respect not usually accorded petty thieves.
If Knight really did live outside for nearly three decades, part of the time in an encampment hidden by hemlocks and boulders on the side of a ridge that sheltered him from the wind, hunters and hikers, and if he really did take everything he needed from nearby camps — work gloves, tents, shoes, toilet paper, food — then reports have so far only skimmed the surface of his story and his life. If Knight does eventually share his experience publicly, the attention granted him has only just begun. Many, many details — perhaps the most important one, an answer to the question, “Why?” — remain unknown. Perhaps, even, he did not have a conscious reason for disappearing, as he told police.
If true, it is an incredible story. Think of the last 27 years of your life, and imagine them spent surviving in the woods, largely separated from the joys and troubles that come with living as part of a community and society. Police reported he had no heat — no campfire from which to gain warmth — because people would have seen the smoke. He transported items on the water using others’ boats, which he always returned, police said. And he reportedly didn’t go out of his encampment site between November and March so as not to leave tracks in the snow. He knew how far he could walk in the darkness and didn’t travel farther. He spent part of his days staring at the sky, identifying the eagles flying overhead.
People don’t have to admire that he may have stolen from camps to marvel at the length of time of his seclusion or his ingenuity. If a court finds him guilty, he will be punished for his crimes. But think of what he endured. Perhaps the wide fascination with his story comes from people understanding the desire to get away from the world but recognizing they would never leave for that long. Perhaps the intrigue also comes from the fact that no one apparently filed a missing person’s report. Where was his support as a young person, or, if it was there, why didn’t he want it? And is it anyone’s business?
The question now falls to the future. With no job, no means of his own, how will he live? He will find himself, perhaps, surrounded by neighbors and a community. How will they respond to him? Judging by many comments posted alongside online news stories about Knight, it almost seems understandable why he would want to leave and why it could be scary to return. It’s clear why camp owners would be angry at Knight, but has he caused others harm? Do not forget Christopher Knight, the person. Even though he set aside typical human behavior and has been made into something of a folk legend already, this state is his home. Welcome him home.