March 18, 2010

A fascinating story of survival, showmanship

LLOYD FERRISS

— By

On a rainy August afternoon in 1913, Joseph Knowles stood at the edge of Maine's Dead River wilderness, removing clothes until he wore nothing more than an athletic supporter. Then he strode into the woods without knife or matches, vowing to return in two months fully clothed and healthy.

''When I emerge in October, I shall be sufficiently clothed to walk the city streets,'' he announced shortly before disappearing into the woods.

Jim Motavalli's new book, ''Naked in the Woods; Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery,'' explores the still controversial feat of the Wilton native who stepped out of the woods two months after his departure; a Tarzan-like figure dressed in a bear skin suit.

To his credit, Motavalli doesn't devote a lot of reader time to proving or disproving Knowles' claim that he survived by his wits and the bounty of Mother Nature. The author does offer his own guarded opinion at the end of this thoroughly researched book, yet it is almost an afterthought.

Motavalli focuses instead on Knowles, and what it was about this unusual Mainer who -- after emerging from the woods -- inspired a crowd of 8,000 cheering fans in Augusta, and 20,000 more on Boston common. Knowles went on to get silent-movie contracts and repeat his survival feat on two occasions.

The author's interesting conclusion is that the timing of Knowles' stunt had much to do with the ensuing hero worship.

In 1913, he notes, the American frontier had disappeared just 30 years earlier. Increasing numbers of people lived in crowded industrial cities. To them, Motavalli explains, Joe Knowles' escapade held out the possibility that they too could live off nature's bounty if they so chose.

''Knowles,'' Motavalli writes, ''came to embody a rekindling of the frontier spirit.''

''Naked in the Woods'' goes on to show how, in the absence of a genuine frontier, the idea of making it alone continues to inspire individualists and their followers. The author notes how Steve Gough stripped naked (but for his hiking boots) in 2003 and walked the length of Great Britain. And, among others, 22-year-old Christopher McCandless, who died in 1992 in the Alaska wilderness.

Interestingly, the title of the 2007 movie that chronicled the McCandless tragedy, ''Into the Wilderness,'' rings similar to the title of a book Knowles co-wrote in a 1914 book, ''Alone in the Wilderness.''

Back-to-nature folks who become folk heroes usually have some backing and, as revealed in Motavalli's book, Joe Knowles was no exception. Although he had worked as a trapper, and his mother was part American Indian, he was a newspaper artist before stepping into the woods in his athletic supporter.

In 1913, Knowles persuaded the Boston Post to sponsor his adventure. He promised to feed reporters news of his survivalist feat by leaving charcoal notes on birch bark in prearranged places. This he did, along with drawings reproduced in ''Naked in the Woods''

During his two months in the woods, newspaper stories back in Boston excited readers with exaggerated claims, allegedly driving up Post circulation from 200,000 to 436,585.

''So far as is known,'' one story read, ''no civilized man, since the world began, ever threw off all the conventionalities of a civilized community.''

One month later, a rival paper to the Post, the Hearst-owned Boston Sunday American, ran a long investigative piece that branded Knowles a fake.

The Wilton man bought his bear skin from a trapper, the American alleged. It called his deer-trapping stunt bogus; claiming that Knowles spent two months living in a cabin where supporters of the hoax brought him food, as well as a young woman to wile away hours.

According to Motavalli, the Post and Knowles likely filed a $50,000 lawsuit, although what became of the suit is unclear.

Knowles, meanwhile, embarked on a cross-country road trip, making money in towns and cities by telling tales while parading in his bear suit. In 1914, he went into the wilderness again, this time in the Siskiyou Mountain region of southern Oregon, where he marched into the woods in a grass loincloth.

Again sponsored by a newspaper, the second trip lasted one month and was not controversial. Knowles' third excursion -- certainly the most hilarious -- took place in 1916 when the Wilton-born survivalist walked semi-naked into the Adirondack Mountains, accompanied this time by actress Elaine Hammerstein dressed in a grass suit.

The Sunday American, sponsor of this adventure, called the pair ''Dawn Man'' and ''Dawn Woman.''

Dawn Woman, the daughter of Arthur Hammerstein, left the Adirondack Mountains after a very short time. In his book, Motavalli quotes her enigmatic statement to the American as to why she cut short the experiment.

''I decided today,'' she allegedly told the paper, ''that I cannot undertake the primitive back-to-nature experiment as Joe Knowles meant to start it this week.''

Joe Knowles went on to build a cabin on the Long Beach Peninsula in Oregon. He married and supported himself by painting portraits and nature scenes still prized today. He died in 1942.

Over the years, Knowles' story of survival in the Maine woods was repeated in newspapers and magazines. The New Yorker, Yankee and the Washington Post all wrote with various takes on the story, as did the Maine Sunday Telegram in 1973.

The author of ''Naked in the Woods,'' who lives in Connecticut, has written four books. Motavalli edits ''E/The Environmental Magazine,'' and hosts a public affairs and music show in Bridgeport, in addition to teaching journalism at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

If you like survival stories and tales of bigger-than-life people, you will enjoy ''Naked in the Woods.'' More than a fascinating story of a Maine character, it deals with the neverending lure of wilderness in the days of urban culture. A great winter read.

Lloyd Ferriss is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.

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