ROME – For some people, including a local folk songwriter, the mysterious figure dubbed the North Pond Hermit continues to be more myth than man.
For others, including some of those he stole from, he is just another burglar who deserves punishment for his crimes.
In the long term, Christopher Knight, 47, who was arrested this month after spending 27 years alone in the woods, will likely be remembered as a legend, even if the actual facts detract from that image, according to novelist Pat O’Donnell, who directs the creative writing program at the University of Maine at Farmington.
Rome songwriter Stan Keach will be part of that legacy. He lives just up the road from where Knight’s camp was discovered, although he’s never been victimized by Knight, who reportedly committed more than 1,000 burglaries, often to steal food.
But when the story of Knight’s remarkable lifestyle broke, Keach rushed to write and produce a music video, “We Don’t Know the North Pond Hermit.”
After a single sleepless night of frantic writing, Keach said, he got together with fellow musician “Barefoot” Dan Simon to record and perform the piece.
The resulting video, which drew more than a thousand views during a recent 24-hour period on the video hosting site YouTube, is firmly rooted in the American folk music tradition, with a catch beat and clear vocals that remind the viewer “we don’t know what the North Pond Hermit knows.”
The lyrics celebrate the more romantic elements of Knight’s lifestyle, saying at one point that “he just took what he needed to survive and nothing more.”
Keach, who retired from a career as a teacher at Maranacook Community High School in nearby Readfield about a year and a half ago, now plays music at local venues, with his next appearance scheduled at the Mount Vernon Community Center on April 27.
Keach said Knight’s story was perfect fodder for a song.
“The mystery of it is what captured me,” Keach said. Whether Knight is an expert at survival or not, he said, “the one thing that we do know is that we don’t know.”
For Keach, Knight is the latest strand in a tapestry of legendary historical figures and events that, together, help add a veneer of magic to Maine’s sense of place.
He has also written songs about Donn Fendler, who became famous at the age of 12 in 1939 after wandering through the Maine woods for nine days; the outlaws of the Brady Gang, who engaged in a spectacular gunfight with the FBI in downtown Bangor in 1937; and Maine’s iconic retailer, L.L. Bean, among others.
Keach said Knight’s story will join the canon of local legends that are “distinctively Maine.”
The song’s final line, “We’re losing touch with nature and we don’t know how it flows,” touches on the universal appeal of Knight’s story, according to O’Donnell, the English professor.
O’Donnell said that, for all of us, there is an urge to turn Knight’s time in the woods into a fantasy life that has become even more popular with the saturation of digital media in our lives.
“As, more and more, we are drawn into the digital world and the world of the screen, TV, movies, computers, iBooks, iPhones, we kind of long for this romantic idea of, not only going camping or going out into nature for a few days, but actually throwing everything aside and becoming one with nature.”
The idea of a life in a natural setting without human contact is an enduring one that crops up repeatedly in literature and storytelling, from “Robinson Crusoe,” which Knight reportedly has read, to “Cast Away,” a 2000 film in which actor Tom Hanks portrays a man stranded on a desert island.
O’Donnell compared Knight’s story to that of Chris McCandless, a young man who died of starvation after leaving society to live in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992.
O’Donnell said many of the details about Knight, including his widely publicized mugshot, have caused people to admire him.
“He’s this sort of a vulnerable, innocent-looking guy who only took what he needed to survive,” she said. The reality of living in the woods, O’Donnell said, is less appealing than the idea.
“Like so many things we fantasize about, it would be miserable, dangerous, and you wouldn’t do it unless you had some pretty severe problems you felt were forcing you into it,” she said.
For many, the fact that Knight supported his lifestyle by stealing from others, including a camp for children and adults with disabilities, detracts from his idyllic life in the woods.
But facts that collide with the image of Knight as a pure figure are likely to be de-emphasized and forgotten over time, O’Donnell said.
She said it is human nature to remember that Knight watched a mushroom grow for four years, and to forget that police recovered a box of watches from his camp.
“We want to see him as a larger-than-life, elevated, enlightened person rather than a human being with flaws and emotional problems and needs like the rest of us,” she said. “We want to latch onto the things that keep the story pure in our minds, that keep this image untarnished, that keep our own dream alive.”
Keach said that he doesn’t support Knight’s thefts, but he draws a moral distinction between them and others he’s heard about.
“He didn’t steal to get OxyContin or anything,” he said.
“I’m not idolizing him or anything, but it’s fascinating,” he said. “To me, it’s a much bigger story than the burglaries. Twenty-seven years, that’s a long time.”
— Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Betty Adams contributed to this report.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:
Correction: This story was revised at 11 a.m., April 18, 2013, to correctly state the name of University of Maine at Farmington Professor Pat O’Donnell.