As Tame Impala once said, ‘solitude is bliss’, and as I say, being alone really is a lovely treat sometimes. With all the hustle and bustle of the world around us, the never-ending bleeping of phones and twitter and people, it’s great to just pull the plug, shut the curtains, and have some me time once in a while. As Beyonce said, I’ve only got me, myself and I. And she meant it.
However, some people take a love of isolation to dizzying, impressive heights, and April’s news of the arrest of Christopher Knight, a 47-year old man from Maine who survived for 27 years living in the forest alone, I want to probe into the singular, fascinating history of hermits and voluntary seclusion from society.
Knight disappeared at the age of 19, and lived in a makeshift tent in the woods, stealing food from surrounding campsites to survive. He was apprehended by police after triggering a security alarm put in place by the owners of a campsite hell-bent on catching the man who would forage for food in their kitchens. As of yet, it is unknown why he chose to separate himself from society.
Here’s an intriguing, hand-picked selection of random info from the wonderful, rich history of hiding-away-from-everyone for you to enjoy:
1. Tom Leppard – The Leopard Man of Skye
Also famous for being the world’s most tattooed man, covered head to toe in £5,500 pounds worth of leopard print tattoos, Tom fled society for 20 years. The former special forces officer made home in a ruined bothy on the Scottish Island of Skye, making weekly canoe trips to town for food and to pick up his pension. Now in his seventies, Leppard reluctantly decided to leave behind his secluded lifestyle in 2008, citing his old age as the reason behind the change.
3. Valerio Ricetti – created a hermit’s ‘utopia’
This Italian-Australian, born in 1898, trained as a stonemason and a concrete worker, and built himself a hermit’s ‘utopia’ cave. The dwelling in New South Wales, Australia, was fit with a kitchen, chapel, landscaping, pathways, terraced gardens, stone walls and stairs. His living area stretched for over a kilometre, and Ricetti lived there almost exclusively for 23 years, with no one becoming aware of his presence despite moving hundreds of tons of rock by hand. His abode was discovered upon an emergency visit to hospital after breaking his leg, after which he had to give an address. It is now listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register.
4. James Lucas – the Hermit of Hertfordshire
Born 1813, Lucas was a social, well-educated landowner known as a good conversationalist, and well versed in the studies of medicine. Already considered to be eccentric, things turned sour when his mother passed away in 1849, after which he barricaded himself in his home and became a recluse. He deferred her burial for three months, became paranoid of his relatives, and allowed nothing in his mansion to be touched. The house naturally fell into decay, and he lived naked in the kitchen, sleeping on dust and soot, covering himself with only a blanket when he went to the window. He lived on a meagre diet of bread, cheese, red herrings and gin, never washed and grew his hair to waist length. He communicated with the rest of the world through an iron grille, yet was happy to receive visitors like vagrants and children, and even Charles Dickens who wrote about him in his essay Tom Tiddler’s Ground. After Lucas’ death, a flabbergasting 17 cartloads of ash and dust were removed from his house. Yikes.
2. Carthusian monks
The Carthusian Order is a Roman Catholic religious order of enclosed monastics, which includes monks and nuns. Founded in 1084, the Order is still alive today, with 370 monks and 75 nuns all over the world as of 2010. Each monk or nun has their own cell, through which meals and any communication like notes are passed via a revolving compartment, in order to achieve the minimum contact possible. They spend most of their time in their cells, eating, praying, writing and working in their gardens or on some manual trade. Traditionally they leave their cell only for three daily prayer services, and perform no missionary or pastoral work: they have almost no contact with the outside world and dedicate their lives to prayer.
5. Willard Kitchener MacDonald – the Hermit of Gully Lake
Macdonald jumped a troop train in order to avoid fighting in World War II, and spent the next 60 years living in an isolated hut by Gully Lake in Canada. Many speculate that his voluntary seclusion was originally to avoid punishment for his desertion, although the real reason is not known. He lived there alone until 2002, when his hut and possessions, such as his guitar and various of his own writings, were destroyed in a forest fire. Following this, he lived in a cabin built by Colchester County, but ran away to the woods when pressed to seek medical help, and his body was found in June 2004. Willard: The Hermit of Gully Lake, released in 2007 and produced by Amy Goldberg, documents his life and final days.
So there’s just a snippet of insight into the weird and wonderful world of hermits and voluntary seclusion, and I cannot help but harbour a strong sense of admiration for these folks who defiantly reject the rulebook of society’s expectations, and live their lives utterly in alliance with their own desires.