Have you ever gotten into a conversation, left absolutely flabbergasted, and then thought long afterward about all the things you should have said? This is about an experience I had with that. It all came out of a conversation with a group of Anarcho-Primitivists regarding Maine’s North Pond Hermit.
The North Pond Hermit was a big story when he was discovered a few years back. At the age of 20, Christopher Thomas Knight abandoned society and lived hidden in the woods of Smithfield, Maine for close to thirty years. He was featured on the national news and written about in GQ magazine. Having mostly sustained himself by burglarizing people’s summer camps, he was arrested, served 8 months in jail, and is currently on probation, required to hold a job and make restitution. Nevertheless, he captured people’s imaginations and his story still makes the rounds on Facebook from time to time.
People want to make him out like he’s some kind of Grizzly Adams, Thoreau style philosopher, and he’s really not. Smithfield Maine, while rural, is hardly the wilderness. Driving through, it’s mostly cow pastures and some pretty nice homes. It’s about 20 minutes from Waterville, a town with a population of about 15,000, having several grocery stores, a Walmart, a Home Depot, and most things you’d expect in an urban area. Knight’s camp was about 1000 yards in the woods. He was basically hiding the whole time behind some rocks in some guy’s back yard. And North Pond is completely developed. The shore is completely lined with camps around the perimeter. Saying that he turned his back on civilization and left to go into the wild is really a stretch.
More importantly though, you need to understand that the guy sustained himself by stealing from others. He didn’t hunt or fish or forage. He didn’t work to make meat and put it away for the winter. The guy broke into people’s camps and took what he thought he needed. He committed over 1000 burglaries. People were terrorized, afraid to go to their camps. And these were all mostly family camps, owned by working people. If you’d justify it that way, he wasn’t even stealing from the wealthy who had it to spare. Most heinous though is the fact that when the man was finally caught, he was caught breaking into the pantry of a summer camp for children with special needs, stealing their candy. That fact is hardly mentioned in any article written about him. Pine Tree Camp. Google it.
I got to discussing all this in a facebook group dedicated to talking about anarcho-primitivism. Anarcho-primitivists basically believe that it all went downhill once we started building civilizations and that we would be freer and happier if we returned to a hunter gatherer society. You might picture someone like Thoreau or Christopher McCandless from Into The Wild. On the extreme end are people like The Unibomer, the tree spikers and the monkey wrenchers. They basically think that civilization is evil and want to do away with it. Anyway, someone in the group posted an article about this North Pond Hermit, and they thought he was the best thing ever.
Now, I am absolutely cool with anarcho-primitivist philosophy. At least, I though I was. Live Free Or Die on NatGeo is one of my favorite shows. Jeremiah Johnson is one of my favorite movies. Hell, I write a blog about anarchism and the outdoors. Fully aware of the reality, I am very much enthralled with the myth of the noble savage. It’s cool stuff.
But when I started talking about what I knew about the guy and started suggesting that he really wasn’t a nice person, they were absolutely down on me. I mentioned that he didn’t really live in the wilderness. So. He lived entirely by stealing from people and made people fear for their safety. Property is theft and doesn’t exist in a primitive society. He stole candy from children with intellectual disabilities? Sugar is bad for you and he was doing the kids a favor. Nope, I was wrong and I needed to get over myself. This guy was the bees’ knees.
Am I out of line in thinking that, if your ethos allows for stealing from retarded children, you have a really crappy ethos?
Plus, with everything I’ve ever seen, heard, or read regarding primitive societies, I have to say that these anarcho primitivists’ views on primitive property is just wrong. Although different from our economy of explicit exchange, primitive societies still have an economy. It’s just based on gifts. Because I love and appreciate you, here’s an arrow. Now, I don’t explicitly want anything in return, but the implication is that it was such a grand gesture, you are forever indebted. To reciprocate, and because you love and value me, you might give me a fish. That will then forever indebt me to you. We are now interconnected, and it will keep going. The point is that there is still exchange going on. It’s just deeper and more complex than what you or I know. Now, what had Christopher Knight done to entitle him to the property of the camp owners? The answer is nothing. He wasn’t part of their tribe or their community. He was just a parasite.
I’d also like to point out that, when the police arrested the man and dismantled his camp, the things he had stolen filled up two garage bays. He had a bed he had stolen from Pine Tree Camp, a television, books, clothes, sleeping bags and blankets, and lotsa lotsa propane tanks and plastic containers. I need to ask, is this a man who had abandoned the trappings of modern society?
I want to be careful to say that the people I had this discussion with may not accurately represent anarcho-primitivist thought. I don’t want to unfairly collectivize anyone. If I have the wrong idea about any of this, please comment or get in touch with me. I’m happy to explore another point of view. Let me just say though that if this guy is your hero, and if this guy is someone you would like to emulate, and if this guy represents the pinnacle of your philosophy, I disagree and you can absolutely count me out.