A 27-year walk in the woods

Lena Friedrich’s award-winning documentary of the North Pond Hermit.

In 1986 a young man drove to the end of a dirt road, left his keys in the car, and carrying a tent he’d never before slept in, walked into the Maine woods. Over the next 27 years his personal interactions with other humans consisted of a single word, “hi,” to a passing hiker who took him by surprise.

Christopher Thomas Knight chose a life alone, camping in the deep forests of the Kennebec Valley, subsisting off the food he would steal from camps and cabins in the area, fattening up in the fall in anticipation of lean times over the brutal Maine winters. He was simultaneously myth and mystery, a legend in the region and an enigma to those whose cabins he’d burgle for boxes of macaroni and cheese, propane tanks, or batteries to power his radio and flashlight.

A beautiful short film by documentarian Lena Friedrich, embedded below, doesn’t so much as tell Knight’s story as it does the story of the people and the community whose lives crossed paths with his hermit ways.

In introducing the film, a featured documentary at The Atlantic, Emily Buder writes:

In the area near North Pond, Knight’s hermitage fomented outrage, intrigue, reverence, and every response in between. Filmmaker Lena Friedrich decided that she had to learn more. In her short documentary, The Hermit, she interviews residents of North Pond who piece together the fabric of a local legend.

“Everyone had a very strong opinion about Knight, and none of them had the same opinion,” Friedrich told me. Some residents viewed Knight as a villain; others saw him as a folk hero of sorts. “I realized that, as with every legend, this one had many versions and interpretations,” Friedrich said. “I tried to find characters who would provide personal layers of understanding to the enigma.”

There’s something deeply appealing about the idea of walking into the woods and disappearing, if only for a little while. This is even more true given what this year has brought. Not that I want to over-romanticize Knight or his experience. As Nathaniel Rich writes about him:

Knight’s hermitage was not entirely pure—he stole processed food and a twin-size mattress, listened to talk radio (a lot of Rush Limbaugh), played handheld video games, and even watched a miniature Panasonic black-and-white television, charged with stolen car batteries …

What Knight sought was solitude and peace, and for 27 years, he found it. Rich continues, “the forest granted him freedom, privacy, and serenity.” It’s not romantic to envy that even if it’s not a life I would choose for myself.

My weekend reading: Inside the Viking mind and world

What I’m reading: Neil’s Price’s “Children of Ash and Elm”

The Vikings are a people both familiar and unfamiliar to us. Familiar through all manner of popular representations on television (Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Norsemen), in the movies (The 13th Warrior, The Vikings, Outlander, Valhalla Rising), and fiction (The Hammer and the Cross, The Golden Wolf Saga).

But unfamiliar in terms of our knowing of their minds, how they understood themselves, and how they understood the worlds through which they moved. Worlds both seen and unseen. This is where Neil Price’s new history of the Vikings, Children of Ash and Elm, truly astonishes, opening an inner window into a people whose minds are in many ways deeply alien to our own.

As Price, distinguished professor and chair of archaeology at Uppsala University, Sweden, explains in an early chapter:

[V]ery different worlds were being built inside the Norse mind. Here is another distinction between appearance and reality, between the surface and what it conceals. From the problematic medieval written sources, and occasional mentions in Eddic and skaldic poetry, emerges one of the most remarkable aspects of the Vikings: the fourfold division of being and an extremely complex notion of what might loosely be called the soul.

This fourfold division begins with their hamr – literally their shell or shape – what you would see if you met a Viking on the street. But this shape, or physical appearance, was not fixed. It could alter, allowing shape-changing into a wolf or bear, or other bird or beast. Not everyone could do this, it wasn’t necessarily voluntary, and whether this ability was thought a blessing or a curse is unclear. What is certain, as Price points out, is that Vikings absolutely knew this happened. It was just another aspect of life:

[I]t is possible, although strange to the modern mind, that such abilities were treated more as a sort of skill than anything else. Some people were good at carpentry, others had a fine singing voice, and your neighbor could become a bear when irritated.

Inside a person’s shape was the second aspect of their being, the hugr, a concept which seems to combine elements of personality, character, temperament, and mind. This was who a person really was, “the absolute essence of you,” distinct and separate from their mutable physical shell.

In the Viking mind, somewhere inside each of us, was a third element, a hamingja, the personification of a person’s luck. Fascinatingly, a hamingja could leave the body and walk around, mostly invisible except to those with the special sight to see them. In extreme circumstances the hamingja could abandon its person:

The English saying that someone’s luck has ‘run out’ is actually using a Norse proverb – except the Vikings meant it literally.

The final element of the fourfold Viking soul is perhaps the most interesting of all, a fully separate being that lived inside every human, inseparable but distinct. Most fascinating of all, given the extremely patriarchal hypermasculinity of Viking society, this separate being, the fylgja, was a female spirit – always a female spirit – even for a man. As Price puts it, “every single Viking man literally had a spirit-woman inside him.” This spirit-woman was a guardian in life and then at death moved on down the family line, a literal embodiment of ancestral connection.

Summing up this discussion, Price writes:

This sense of something utterly alien beneath the skin, occasionally manifesting itself in actions or words, may have been one of the most significant differences between the Vikings and the people they encountered. Certainly for a European Christian, the composite soul with its shapes and shells would have been deeply unnerving.

Simply put, this book is a treasure. Rebecca Onion writes, in her review at Slate, “Price has a talent for evoking the Vikings’ physical surroundings as they might have been—a gift for recreation that’s probably natural for an archaeologist accustomed to eking significance from the smallest bit of disturbed dirt.” She’s absolutely right, and I didn’t even touch on that aspect of the book here.

I’m only half way through at this point, just at the beginning of Price’s discussion of the Viking Age history we think we know best, their trading, raiding, and expansion from Eurasia to the shores of North America. Every page I turn brings a new revelation. This is, hands down, the best book I’ve read in a very long time.

Music for a Friday: A song of emigration

An immigrant family on the dock, Ellis Island, 1925. (Credit: Getty Images)

In January 1988 The Pogues released If I Should Fall from Grace with God, their third studio album and what would end up being their best-selling. The first single off that album, “Fairytale of New York,” may be the best known, and while it has become iconic, to my mind it’s not the best song on the record. That honor goes to the subject of this post.

“Thousands are Sailing” is a beautiful song of loss, longing, bitterness, joy, and hope. In short, in two 16-line verses and three varied choruses, the song captures the experience of emigration like few others.

While the specifics reference the 20th century Irish experience, the sentiments, I suspect, are universal to those who have come to America in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

Guitarist Phil Chevron’s lyrics take us from the days of 19th century “coffin ships,” where as many as 30 percent of those set sail from Ireland to America died in transit, to Ellis Island, and then the 1980s when the “open door” policy is replaced with a system of immigration quotas and lotteries which forced many Irish to come illegally and live their lives in the shadows. The first chorus paints a picture of both the perils and the promise of a new world:

Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
To a land of opportunity
That some of them will never see
Fortune prevailing
Across the western ocean
Their bellies full
Their spirits free
They’ll break the chains of poverty
And they’ll dance

It’s a brilliant song that will stay with you long after it’s over. You can listen to it here.

A riveting hour of television

(Credit: BBC)

In November 1979, following the release of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, a remarkable debate took place on late-night British television. Forty years later, that debate, between representatives of the Britain’s Christian establishment and Python members John Cleese and Michael Palin, is just as riveting and relevant as the day it took place.

The film, which tells the story of Brian of Nazareth, unlucky enough to be born on the same day as the subsequently more famous Jesus of Nazareth. As the Irish Examiner summarizes:

After joining a Jewish, anti-Roman terrorist group, The People’s Front of Judea, he is mistaken for a prophet and becomes an unwilling Messiah. All this eventually produces the film’s most remembered line, courtesy of Brian’s mother Mandy (Terry Jones). “He’s not the Messiah,” she tells us, “he’s a very naughty boy”.

The movie was met with instant controversy when it was released. I remember local churches in my Florida hometown passing out leaflets denouncing the comedy as blasphemous. The film was banned in Ireland, Norway, and parts of Britain, and elsewhere in the US, crowds picketed outside theaters where it was showing.

With the controversy raging, Cleese and Palin, along with the Anglican Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, were invited on to the program Friday Night, Saturday Morning to debate the film and its merits.

What followed was, and remains, riveting viewing. Andrew Todd explains:

Perhaps the most famous element of Life of Brian blowback was a televised debate on talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning – a show whose host changed each fortnight, and whose hosts selected their own guests. Moderated by Jesus Christ Superstar lyricist Tim Rice, the debate pitted John Cleese and Michael Palin against Catholic bishop Mervyn Stockwood and broadcaster and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge (both of whom were likely selected, in part, for their stubbornness). The topic: Life of Brian, and the accusation that it was a work of blasphemy.

the first section simply has Cleese and Palin discussing the making of the film, speaking as eloquently and amusingly as you’d expect from legendary comedians at, arguably, their peak (Cleese had just wrapped Fawlty Towers as well). Upon Muggeridge and Stockward’s entrance, things become hostile, as the two old men demonstratively expound on their own faith and fire veiled (and unveiled) insults at the two Pythons. Stockward in particular rarely makes eye contact with his ostensible opponents, instead preaching to the audience or into the ether, refusing to allow the filmmakers to respond.

Cleese and Palin do their best to keep their cool, continuing to defend their film as it’s labeled to their faces as “a little squalid number,” “tenth-rate,” “buffoonery,” and “unworthy of an educated man.” Closing out with Stockward proclaiming that the Pythons would “get [their] thirty pieces of silver,” the sham of a debate is a fascinating insight into both the Pythons’ vision for the film and the closed-mindedness of certain elements of the Church. Indeed, Muggeridge and Stockward, for all their bluster, end up proving Life of Brian’s thesis without even a hint of satire.

Cleese and Palin make a fundamental point that goes right over the heads of their interlocutors. Far from making a film that was intended to undermine people’s faith, they wanted to, and did, make a film that would make its audience laugh, and but more importantly even think a little bit.

It is the kind of debate that is frankly unthinkable on television today, with serious people (yes really) dealing with a serious topic in way that is, for the most part, intellectually and spiritually honest. If you ask me to score the event, my card gives it to the Pythons, hands down. But you should watch it and make up your own mind.

That’s what Cleese, Palin, and the other Pythons wanted you to do all along.