BOOK REVIEW: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

The Stranger in the Woods: The extraordinary story of the last true hermitThe Stranger in the Woods: The extraordinary story of the last true hermit by Michael Finkel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book delves into the fascinating case of Christopher Knight, a man who lived twenty-seven years in central Maine without human contact. Knight survived by stealing food and other supplies from cabins and other unoccupied buildings in the area. By his own admission, Knight conducted about forty burglaries per year for the more than a quarter of a century he lived in solitude. In addition to providing a biography of Knight, his hermit years as well as his capture, his trial, and his challenging reentry into society, the book discusses the psychology and philosophy of reclusive living in some detail.

This book was riveting to me, in part because I’m pretty deep into introverted territory and I recognize some of Knight’s personality traits in myself, and even I can’t fathom how he managed that degree of solitary living over so many years. What seems to be most difficult for people to comprehend was how he lived with only a tent-like shelter through the Maine winters, sometimes below zero Fahrenheit, while never building a campfire. (He did have a propane stove, but wouldn’t build a fire for fear that it would bring the authorities right to him.) That is astounding, but what I find even more amazing is the psychology, how Knight maintained sanity with that degree of self-imposed isolation, prisoners in solitary confinement have gone stark-raving mad with shorter and less intensely solitary stints.

Another issue that makes Knight’s story so compelling is that in so many ways he wasn’t your typical hermit. While he seems to have been uniquely wired to thrive on solitude and had the intelligence necessary to problem solve his survival, he wasn’t a spiritual seeker; he wasn’t particularly a minimalist (he accumulated lots of stuff;) and he did listen to the radio, as well as listening to television shows over his radio. While he went to great lengths to ensure he didn’t come into contact with people and that his camp wasn’t found, it’s interesting that he did stay fairly close to people [granted that might have been entirely owing to the need to steal from them, but one has to wonder if proximity didn’t have other causes as well.] Knight is an engaging character, it’s hard not to have some respect – begrudging or otherwise — for his ingenuity and unique capacity for extreme solitude, but he’s also a felon whose burglaries disturbed a lot of people’s lives.

This is one of the most captivating books I’ve read in some time, and I’d highly recommend it.

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Simplify [Free Verse]

One item per day 
was abandoned
until living got hard.

But like Diogenes -- 
who gave up his cup
upon seeing a boy 
slurping from cupped palms -- 
eventually, it all was gone.

Each item hand-weighed,
its weight against is usefulness,
and all were found expendable.

The Thoreau Life [Common Meter]

What a way to live one's life, in
a cabin made of wood;
never to be governed by: "I
have to! I must! I should!"

To set one's sights on the day's needs
as one's only master,
and not be told, "you move too slow,
you must live life faster." 

To start the day by a cue from
rays of the rising sun.
To end the day when the day ends,
not only just've begun.

In Medias Res [Free Verse]

Journeys start with a cattle-prod jolt 
& a kick in the soul --
not at an airport,
or a ferry dock,
or a taxi stand,
or at the curb.

By the time you've gotten that far,
you're already traveling.

By the time you've "decided" to go,
you're already traveling. 

Travel begins earlier,
if in the dark,
because travel is not a dream,
&
only dreams start 
in the middle of nonsense.

Real life flows down 
a continuous and unbroken
stream of nonsense, 
drifting at a rate slow enough 
for your brain to make a movie of
rationalizations,
so that your brain can tell you: 
that you're in control,
that you know what's going on,
that you know what will happen next,
&
assorted and sundry bullshit like that. 

Cold Shore [Free Verse]

Was it a lifetime ago,
or was it a dream?

I remember it being a 
long drive to a cold shore.

And I sat alone
on that shore,
and I sought a shark --
not out in the waters,
but within myself. 

Finding nothing,
I felt the thing to do
was to 
rattle in rhythm with
the twisted hustle of
pounding waves,

and I awoke, 
shivering under piercing
points of light
that somehow felt cold,
& 
made me feel cold -
deep inside.

Line of Lost Souls [Rondeau Triolet]

I'm queued into a file of lost psyches.
It winds through time but lacks a hint of space,
and something heads the line that's unappeased
I'm queued into a file of lost psyches.
A greedy devourer remains displeased
despite the endless line and racing pace.
I'm queued into a file of lost psyches,
it winds through time but lacks a hint of space.

BOOK REVIEW: Nature is Never Silent by Madlen Ziege

Nature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each otherNature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each other by Madlen Ziege
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: Hardcover out February 8, 2021 [e-book is out now]

The central premise of this book is that humans miss the tremendous amount of communication that is going on among and between other species. We miss it because we think of communication in an extremely limited way that revolves around visual and auditory expressions of human style languages. It doesn’t occur to us that different senses (e.g. smell) or other activities (e.g. stinging or passing gases,) could be used to convey messages as overt as, “Don’t touch me!” to as complex as, “There are good flowers to the southeast, roughly four-hundred meters along this line” or “Watch out! Some beetles have started chewing on my bark.”

While one might still dismiss all this communication as extremely simple compared to the infinitely complicated endeavor humans have made communicating, it’s not all just warning signaling. Many species engage in a form of communication that most people would probably attribute to humanity alone, specifically, deception. There are female fireflies who cannot only send a mating signal to males of her species to engage in reproduction, but can send counterfeit signals of other species to attract a male of another species of which she can make a snack.

It’s also important to note that it’s not just the species most similar to us who communicate. There are chapters devoted to both unicellular creatures and plants, species that one might be surprised to learn are quite active communicators.

I found this to be a highly thought-provoking book for the nature-lover, and I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to expand his or her horizons with respect to what is being transmitted in the natural world on those cold and quiet days when it seems like not a creature is stirring, and yet there’s always something.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Simpler Life by The School of Life

A Simpler LifeA Simpler Life by The School of Life
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: January 6, 2022 (May be later in your market)

This book is hard to rate because for the person who is entirely new to the subject, it will offer some interesting food for thought and point one in the direction of useful resources. However, if you’ve been giving the topic some thought and have read works like Kamo no Chōmei’s “The Ten Foot Square Hut,” you’re likely to find it a disappointing regurgitation of the thoughts of others mixed with banal truisms. So, I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who’s begun simplifying their lives, but for someone who needs an entry point that isn’t as intimidating as hardcore works such as that of Chōmei it might be of use.

My biggest problem with this book was that it seemed to suggest that because simplifying means more simplicity that all readers would be converging toward the same life. In other words, that there isn’t space for a diversity of approaches to simplicity. In one of the great ironies of the book, it advocates for reading less and having at most a dozen books on one’s shelf. The irony isn’t the suggestion of fewer books, but that in a world in which no one had more than a dozen books on their shelves, this book would not exist on any of them. And the kinds of books this book suggests are essentially self-help titles. [To be fair, I almost never read self-help books because they mostly (and certainly in this case) leave me feeling like I would having come from a fortuneteller – i.e. feeling lighter in the wallet, but no wiser in the mind.]

This isn’t a bad book, but I think most readers can do better.


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