SCPL Online NonFiction Book Club discussion

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
This topic is about The Stranger in the Woods

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by SCPL (last edited Aug 09, 2018 05:57AM) (new) - added it

SCPL (st_catharines_public_library) | 542 comments Mod

What are your thoughts on the idea of being a hermit?

Can you identify with the idea of getting away and leaving it all behind? People are stressed with work, bills, responsibilities, structure, routine, etc. Does the idea of “dropping out” from society and connecting with nature and our environment appeal to you?

In addition to finding simplicity and freedom, Knight was also almost completely silent. Finkel discusses the idea that hermits are perceived to be people who have attained a deeper wisdom as a result of their silence and isolation. They are left alone with their own thoughts and inner monologue. Is silence really golden? Can you attain wisdom and knowledge through silence and introspection?

Even though Knight was silent, he read a lot too. He also regularly listened to the news on the radio. Does this count as a conversation/human connection?

More broadly, what about the desire to shake up your reality? People fall into routines (ruts) and every day is predictable and expected. Do you have any interest in shaking things up, moving far away and starting afresh? Is that sustainable?


Heidi Madden | 118 comments Can I identify with the idea of getting away? Absolutely! After all that’s kind of what camping is all about for me. Getting back to just the basic necessities of life and living outside for awhile. Going “offline” and just existing with whomever and whatever you brought with you. But it’s only ever for a period of time. Not for my whole life.

The silence blew my mind. I expect it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that that would be a big struggle for me. I *strongly* identify with Liz Gilbert in “Eat, Pray, Love” when she’s in India and takes a vow of silence that lasts about 30 minutes because she’s asked to be a hostess to the Ashram. That would be me. Regarding Knight, being silent is one thing but not even journaling? That totally wouldn’t happen. I’m an external thinker. I wouldn’t come to any wisdom or knowledge through silence and introspection. I’d just go crazy. I don’t like being alone with my thoughts without letting them out in SOME form.

I actually do think that listening to the radio and reading books and magazines does count as human interaction. Yes it was one-sided but he still consumed media. Plus, he heard human voices even if he didn’t ever speak. So unlike many hermits he wasn’t cut off from the world. It makes his situation very different from those who are looking for spiritual enlightenment or whatever.

Do I have an interest in moving far away? Apparently. In 2010 after a decade in corporate life in BC, I packed what I could fit into my car and moved to Ontario. I’d say that counts ;) I was definitely in a rut there and I needed a fresh start. The difference is I moved to another community and developed new relationships. I didn’t go off into the wilderness(-ish, he was still surrounded by people) and live by myself.

message 3: by SCPL (new) - added it

SCPL (st_catharines_public_library) | 542 comments Mod
Hi Heidi,

Thank you for your detailed response!

Camping is a great example of getting away from the busyness of life as well as technology. The point you mention of going "offline" is a big one. Nowadays, I think some people see their phones/tablets as an extension of themselves and feel lost without that connection. For Knight, he had an interest in computers but never experienced the Internet or cell phones prior to leaving society.

Throughout the book, Knight is viewed by several people as someone who only speaks the truth. As a result, I am more likely to believe that he did not speak a word, even to himself, while alone in the woods. At the same time, part of me finds that difficult to believe, especially since he read so much, listened to talk radio, played video games, and watched/listened to television shows like Seinfeld. Can a person really be completely silent when consuming all that media? Even a grunt when he made a mistake playing Tetris or a guffaw listening to George Costanza's antics? Total silence? I find that a bit difficult to believe.

I agree with your point that he did have human connection and interaction through the location of his campsite. He says he observed people but only to determine their patterns in order to steal from their cabins unnoticed. Also, listening to music, television shows, and radio programs as well as reading seem like human connection. He was not completely alone with his own thoughts. I don't think he was looking for spiritual enlightenment, like you said.

Yes, I would definitely agree that your career change and move to Ontario qualifies as shaking up your reality. That is a major decision and takes a great deal of courage. With our globalized world, I feel like that becomes more and more possible. I have family living in B.C, Europe, Australia, etc. and that isn't unusual by any stretch. People move, change careers, for many reasons but tend to maintain and develop new human connections, like you said.

I think for a lot of people, choosing to leave society is seen as strange and abnormal. I'd definitely like to discuss this idea - was Knight the weird one for leaving our society or are we the odd ones for continually adjusting to a society that "goes against nature"?

One of the many quotes that Finkel includes in the book is from Krishnamurti, which is: "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."


message 4: by Diana (last edited Aug 22, 2018 08:52AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Diana (librariandi) | 23 comments Hi Nicole,

I've finally started reading this one and am happy to be able to join in the discussion!

I think we've all probably fantasized about the idea of getting away from it all. The "daily grind" can be exhausting and monotonous, but for most of us, a vacation or a camping trip can be just the escape we need. But as Heidi said, only usually for a period of time. I personally am pretty dependent on necessities such as hot water and a comfy bed, and I start to crave the comforts of home after a week or two of travel. I think a weekend or perhaps a week of camping would be enough connecting with nature for me :P

While it was hard to wrap my head around Knight's living outdoors through the cold New England winters, I think it was even harder to imagine how he could remain silent for decades. While I do think some wisdom can be attained through introspection, I also could never stay silent for such a long period. I am a talker, though and through...I even talk to myself when no one is around with no shame!

That being said, I agree with Heidi that listening to the radio and reading books counts as a human connection. I think even just hearing another person's voice and reading another person's words would be enough to keep a person from feeling completely isolated.

Finally, in terms of shaking up reality...maybe I'm a boring person but I've lived in the same city my whole life and done the same jobs for years and years. I do watch HGTV shows and imagine leaving it all behind to live on a tropical beach somewhere, but in reality, I'm not sure I could do it. I think perhaps a cottage or a vacation home would be the best of both worlds if one could afford it--a place to go to escape the everyday, perhaps somewhere a little more rustic or exotic, but knowing you could return to "normal civilization" when you wanted to. Maybe one day!

message 5: by SCPL (new) - added it

SCPL (st_catharines_public_library) | 542 comments Mod
Hi Diana,

Thank you for your response and welcome to the discussion :)

Yes, I don't think I could live happily without some essentials like hot water and a comfy bed, like you mentioned, as well as indoor plumbing!

The fact that Knight not only was alone for all that time is impressive enough but the fact that he never spoke a word is almost more astounding. Finkel has a great little experiment (p. 132) where he asks cabin owners to think about how long they've gone without human interaction. He defines human interaction as not seeing or communicating in any way with others. Interestingly, he determines that reading, radio, TV were acceptable.

Finkel said 90% of people responded that they've never spent one day in complete solitude. I don't think I have gone more than one day without some type of human interaction/communication. What about you Diana? Heidi?

I think we're all in agreement that reading books, listening to the radio and watching TV count as human interaction. Knight could even hear the murmurs of nearby hikers and campers so he was never completely alone.

I think there's other ways a person can shake up their reality beyond a major move or leaving society. Going outside of your comfort zone, pushing yourself either in mind or body would all qualify as shaking things up. A recent example for me is that I participated in the MS Bike Ride on Sunday and I'm not a serious cyclist. I chose the 75km distance over the 40km because I wanted to push myself. I was definitely hurting around the 55km mark but I kept pushing and succeeded. That was a physical and mental hurdle that I overcame but was under no obligation to do so.

In the case of Knight and leaving society, however, I agree with you Diana that a week or two away from the everyday is a much more practical solution. I love to travel and see the world but at the same time I love the feeling of coming home!


Heidi Madden | 118 comments I found the part about “how long have you gone without human interaction” absolutely fascinating. I have to admit, even on days where I don’t see anyone at all I’m still fully connected via social media. And on days where I’m not online, I’m generally surrounded by friends. So no social media and no people? I’d still have books/music/movies, etc!!! So would I ever be totally disconnected? I don’t think so and in many ways I don’t think Knight was either.

The question is, could I do it? Like Nicole, I think I’d need something else to focus on. Something physical is a good way to do it. I’m currently fascinated by people who have walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. That is presented as a solitary trek but the truth is you’re still totally surrounded by people and civilization. People who do the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, or even the Bruce Trail, are really a lot more solitary. And that requires overcoming those physical and mental hurdles when you’re under no obligation to do so. I can’t fathom just sitting at home and not engaging with anything. I think that’s where solitary confinement makes people crazy. When they’re just sitting in a cell with absolutely no input and all alone with their thoughts. I’d likely go “crazy” in a lot less than six days!

message 7: by SCPL (new) - added it

SCPL (st_catharines_public_library) | 542 comments Mod
Those hikes are great examples of testing your physical and mental strength. They have a solitary element, which I'm sure would appeal to Knight but would also run the risk of human interaction.

Like you, to be alone I feel like I would still need something else to focus on. Knight knew his campsite like the back of his hand but he didn't really go exploring because it would run the risk of being found. Finkel claims that Knight was never once bored and he felt so immersed and connected to nature, his environment, and the changing seasons.

I almost cannot believe the extremes that Knight went to in order to remain hidden: never lighting a fire in the winter, only leaving his site at night, not speaking a word, etc. It's baffling but I almost can't help but admire such dedication.

Left alone with my own thoughts, there's no way that I wouldn't start speaking (or singing) within 30 minutes. I like peace and quiet but I cannot imagine absolute silence for such a long time.


back to top