Detachment and Re-attachment: The Mind of a Hermit No More

Christopher Knight disappeared into the woods at the age of 20 and returned at 47 without a masterpiece, without a testimony of life’s greater purpose, without anything profound to convey.

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

Publisher: Knopf
Hardcover: 224 pages
Language: English
Author: Michael Finkel
Publication date: 2017-03

Deep into Michael Finkel’s moving and haunting book, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, the narrative finally allows for some skepticism to intrude. This isn’t to say that Finkel was not initially skeptical of the story, but the highly questionable story he would uncover would prove extraordinary.

In 1986, a 20-year-old Massachusetts native named Christopher Knight drives north to the deep forests of Maine and disappears. For 27 years, he manages to build lodging for himself that suitably protects from the brutal Maine winters, effectively plan and execute approximately 1,000 break-ins of nearby cabins to acquire food and other goods, and create an area legend equal parts myth and reality. How did he do it? Why did he do it? Would he ever be caught?

It’s this tricky balance Finkel has to accept before entering the world of Christopher Knight. Are we supposed to like Christopher? Jon Krakauer had to ask himself the same question about Christopher McCandless, of Into The Wild (Anchor Books, 1996). A seemingly normal young man decides to leave society and live in the wild. Why should we care? The major difference between Krakauer’s subject and Finkel’s, one that makes the latter’s so confounding, is that Christopher Knight survived. That’s more Finkel’s triumph than Knight’s, but it’s also more than a little difficult to reconcile with logic.

For a little over half the book’s relatively brief 203 pages, we have been deep in the romantic sway of this story. After all, we have no obligation to investigate, validate sources, and meet journalistic standards. Finkel does, and it’s through the conclusiveness of (among several) a Pine Tree Camp employee:

“Everything that came from his camp stunk,” said Steve Treadwell, the Pine Tree Employee who’d observed the police interrogation of Knight and the dismantling of his site, “But he was clean-smelling. He didn’t live in the woods. His story doesn’t pass the smell test -- literally.”

Up until this point, Finkel manages to carefully build his story with brief glimpses of his character. In the two pages of Chapter One, the hermit is furtive and careful to move without leaving trails. “He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken.” Soon enough, we meet Maine Game Warden Terry Hughes, the Ahab to Knight’s Moby Dick, and we enter the chase in its final moments. Game Warden Hughes and Maine State Trooper Diane Vance had been on the trail of this North Pond Hermit for decades, and they’re finally closing in.

The convenience of books like Krakauer’s Into The Wild, or Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man (Riverhead, 2002), is that the fate of their heroes is already known. Krakauer’s Christopher McCandless died, and Gilbert’s Eustace Conway seems to have been discredited as an authentic mountain man. However, with The Stranger In The Woods, the problem comes when we think about whether or not the authors imposed too much of themselves on their subject’s narrative.

Finkel’s subject is a difficult, troubled person, no matter how much he might want to dismiss that diagnosis. Finkel’s definitely done his deep research here, from childhood classmates who might have found him quiet and reserved to all sorts of expert sources about the typical profile of a hardcore loner. The question remains: should Finkel have produced a book profiling a man who clearly did not want to be at the center of anything society had to offer?

Fortunately, testimony from Christopher Knight himself, carefully sprinkled throughout through the course of this book, gives lie to the idea that this man (as distinctly a strange Maine / New England individualist character as there has ever been) was anything less than ready to talk. Some of Knight’s comments are refreshingly dismissive of the typical romantic hermits throughout American history: “Knight’s disdain for Thoreau was bottomless -- ‘he had not deep insight for nature.’” For Christopher Knight, Henry David Thoreau was little more than a dilettante. Knight was equally dismissive of Robert Frost, and he had an interesting way to clarify his relationship with Jack Kerouac: “I don’t like people who like Jack Kerouac.”

Early in the book, as a way to perhaps gain Knight’s confidence and position himself as a flawed but sincere journalist, Finkel provides some refreshing honesty about past mistakes. There’s a clear environmental connection between author and subject. Finkel lived in Montana, a land of wide open spaces and people who could hide for years in plain sight. He’d also employed a tactic of creating composite characters, based on various interviews, to manipulate the narrative of a story about child labor.

“Maybe the admission that I was a sinner within my profession, while Knight was a confessed thief, unable to live in solitude without pilfering from others, would engender a sense of connection -- both of us striving, and failing, to achieve lofty ideals.”

Finkel clearly understands the need to sometimes disconnect and isolate for reasons of spiritual renewal or general contemplation. He argues that fervently devout Christian solitaries frightened the authorities. “Hermits were unsupervised thinkers, pondering life and death and God, and the Church, with its ingrained schedules and rote memorization, did not approve of many hermits’ ideas.” Whether or not Knight follows in the unbreakable chain of brooding isolationists seems to be purely in Finkel’s hands, and that’s a difficult responsibility the author handles with extreme sensitivity.

However, what will frustrate any reader of The Stranger In The Woods -- and it’s no fault of Finkel’s -- is that Knight adamantly refuses to conform to any image or script of the typical hermit. He was a voracious reader, probably because books were as easily accessible as items to pilfer from nearby cabins, but he left behind no tangible sense of art, visual or written. One might think he protests too much when he claims he did not speak to himself, a trademark characteristic of a Hollywood film hermit. Of Journals, the other expected by-product of a prototypical hermit, Knight never saw any sense of honesty in them. “It [a journal] either tells a lot of truths to cover a single lie… or a lot of lies to cover a single truth.” Finkel slips up a little here because this was a great opportunity for him to ask specific follow-up questions. What specific example represents the worst of nature journals? Why?

The story of Christopher Knight seems to be one of major extremes. He hated National Geographic from childhood because they had apparently once published a photograph of a Peruvian shepherd boy in tears. Knight comments: “He had failed his family, who had entrusted him with the herd. It’s disgusting that everybody can see a little boy’s failure.” Finkel does take the opportunity here to ask Knight if he had done something unspeakably shameful that might have triggered his trip into the woods, and Knight insists he had not.

The flipside of this apparent empathy is seen with Knight’s fixation on a book like Frederick Drimmer's Very Special People (1973), a collection of stories and photographs about human oddities. Did he fancy himself among the marginalized? Was he romanticizing his condition as a way to rationalize approximately a thousand cabin break-ins? These questions, understandably, go unanswered.

Knight was a Stoicist, a follower of Socrates, but for all his tendencies to align himself with high-minded principles and philosophies, he was born into a living society and still had to live with the consequences of his actions. “I wasn’t consciously judging society or myself,” he notes. “I just chose a different path.” His clinical diagnosis from the state of Maine included three possible conditions: Asperger’s disorder, depression, schizoid personality disorder. “I don’t want to be in the position of victim,” he notes. “It’s not my nature. There’s not much… that I can do about my diagnosis…”

By the end of The Stranger In The Woods, Finkel offers a truly heartbreaking scene of closure and departure. After many months awaiting trial, Christopher Knight accepts (because he has no choice) the state’s verdict and continues to adjust (more or less) to life in the world he’d chosen to escape nearly 30 years earlier. Knight has accepted that Finkel will create the story we’re reading, no matter what, and he’s apparently at peace with that:

“ ‘You’re my Boswell,’ he declares. He no longer cares what’s written about him… ‘You can make T-shirts with my image on them if you wish, and have your kids sell them on the corner.’”

This is a beautifully rendered, carefully researched story that's not necessarily about Christopher Knight, a 47-year-old hermit who’d disappeared at the age of 20 and returned without a masterpiece, without a testimony of life’s greater purpose, without anything profound to convey. Finkel knows that there has to be about a bigger picture. Can any of us truly be alone? Can we survive on a diet of stolen fast food, an endless series of great books, and a fervent desire to take our deepest secrets to our grave? Finkel doesn’t solve any of these mysteries. His mission is to uncover the questions.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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