A Good Read – The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel


The Stranger in the Wood was the book on the top of the pile of my lockdown library. A fitting read for our current times.

A young man, Christopher Knight, inexplicably leaves his family, parks the car at the side of the road and disappears into the Maine woods to live alone for 27 years. That is until he is captured breaking into the kitchen of a children’s camp by a zealous ex Marine and local park warden and the game is up.

In this expertly researched book, Finkel examines Knight’s early life, his loner tendencies and his motivations for leaving. He visits Knight’s camp and interviews local residents, from whom Knight stole.

I guess we all have idealised notions of what a hermit should be and, romantically want them to be a rebel with a cause, whether it is disenchantment with modern life, a desire to go back to nature or a spiritual calling. In this Knight disappoints.

He is a hermit unable to shake his addiction to late 20th century American culture. Despite being an able hunter and fisherman, Knight chose to live close to civilization and steal food from the summer cabins dotted around the nearby lake.

His diet consists primarily of junk food. The kind of American food likely to give you scurvy. He has a thing for Mac N cheese, Mountain Dew and marshmallows. He steals trashy novels, he steals radios, he even steals a portable tele and, when discovered, his camp contained a dump with 20 odd years of plastic litter slowly degrading into the forest. It is hard to find any of this laudable.

What did strike me as admirable though was his complete lack of desire to ‘tell his story.’ How deeply refreshing in this day and age. He didn’t want to share his insights, he just wanted to be left alone.

Unfortunately for Knight, Finkel’s fascination with the story just won’t let up and, after an exchange of letters, he, uninvited, flies across the country and visits Knight in jail and follows this up by invading his families home. This persistence feels intrusive but it pays off and he manages to win Knights confidence and prise his story out of him.

In some ways, where the book works best, for me, is not in this personal tale but in placing it in context of historical account of hermits and explorations of the psychological make up of the people who would choose this life.

Christopher Knight is clearly a man who doesn’t fit in society, who finds interaction with other people an exhausting performance and feels he can only truly be himself when alone.

After two weeks of lockdown with the world suddenly online and the blinking eye of my laptop invading my living room I know how he feels.

Shut in the towns unable to escape, the thought of vanishing into the nearest woods is suddenly even more compelling.

The story of someone who truly went into retreat and found solace in being alone felt strangely refreshing. But before I disappear I think I will pack something more nutritious than Mac N Cheese

Alone on the Marshes – A day in the life of an environmental consultant – March 2020

land check studd feb 2020

Enjoying the solitude while surveying on the marshes.

At the beginning of March few of us could foresee how rapidly life would change for us all.

Indeed for much of the month my work carried on as normal. Visiting sites, talking about land management and anticipating a great spring of wader surveys with the land looking wetter than ever.

At times this month I have thanked my lucky stars at having a job where social isolation is the norm. In fact I have often felt that in order to do much of my job you have to be someone very good at dealing with your own company as I spend long days on my own on the marshes with only the sheep to talk to.

As the month progressed and the impact of the virus on everyone’s life became apparent I still felt that, in my working world at least, I was immune. Right up until the lock down I was spending days wandering fields with skylarks singing overhead and the waves crashing on the shore of the Thames.

Out there, in the fields, life felt normal and panic buying and worries over the health of loved ones seemed many miles away. I have been extremely grateful for every moment out on site this month.

checking for water voles at keith studdI have also been very grateful to keep working. Throughout March I have been working with Natural England on a fabulous project undertaking assessments on designated sites across North Kent. Most of the sites have RAMSAR, SPA and SSSI status and my role was to visit sites and update the assessment.

This involved looking at the general condition of the land for wintering and breeding wildfowl and waders, undertaking a search for water vole signs and testing water quality for nitrates and phosphates.

Most of the sites were well known to me through my work on the North Kent Marshes Breeding Wader project but I also had the opportunity to visit one or two totally new sites which was a real treat and gave me an insight into how many areas would be suitable for breeding waders given the right advice and management.

Luckily all the site visits were completed before the lockdown and the last two weeks have been spent indoors busily typing up the results.
snipe on cooling marshNormally being stuck indoors on a laptop as spring progresses outside would drive me mad but, with travel restricted, even this has given me the opportunity to walk the marshes, if only in my mind. At times the sad news of rising death tolls has been forgotten as in my head I spotted snipe in the rushes or warily eyed the cattle in the next field.

With the opportunity for undertaking my normal survey work currently looking remote I will remember those moments this spring and look forward to a time when I can get back out into the fields again