Resist easy answers

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I’m supposed to require “research” projects from the students in my first-semester journalism elective at Rhode Island School of Design. My first question to the students is, “What does the word ‘research’ mean?”

This time, I assigned “The Stranger in the Woods,” with its promising subtitle, “The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” as a fine example of good research. The book has an intriguing cover, with the words printed, in what appears to be white chalk, over an image in forest green of a wrecked car abandoned in a thick grove of trees – an apt illustration of the word “research.”

The superb author of this biography, Michael Finkel, is a chap from Montana who has done his share of camping out, and chose to visit the famous/infamous camper in Maine who inspired that cover.  Christopher Knight was 20 when he left his car behind and chose to spend nearly three decades so totally alone among the trees that he spoke only a few words to a single fellow wanderer in 30 years! He survived in otherwise utter silence and total solitude, but he broke into the cabins of neighbors for the bare necessities of survival in icebound winter weeks. He was not, then, arrested for vandalism, because he did no harm.  His thefts were so meager that if he came across anything of value, he left such finds behind and took only bits of food or the minimal tools he required. Some neighbors actually left things for him, while others profoundly resented his intrusions. Still others never believed he existed except as a myth, like some yeti.

Why do I admire the writer of this account? For his virtues of non-judgmental perspective. For his willingness to avoid exaggeration of Knight’s virtues or vices, and for the accuracy of his observations and interpretations.  And for his persistence and eloquence.

Finkel thanks all those who helped him in his quest for scholarly connections to hermit history and homeless philosophy throughout the development of what we call “civilization.”  He makes it clear that he values Knight, even though Knight resists him all the way and rejects his friendly advances.

Knight turns him away over and over again, telling him to go back to Montana and leave him alone! Yet Finkel persists in his endeavors to unlock the mystery of Knight’s motivation for choosing the discomforts of his life instead of seeking the usual comforts offered by our consumer culture. Everything from conversation to sex, from entertainment to the gadgetry of communication, means less than nothing to Knight. And Finkel finds him highly intelligent, witty and ironic, creative and resistant.

I found every single word in this most unusual text to be pure poetry! Not a single sentence – right down to the punctuation – is without compelling diction! You must peruse this prose slowly, like sipping the finest wine, to taste its elegant ironies.

My customary first lecture in my journalism seminar encourages the students to get out of their studio world and classroom confinement and explore. And to speak to someone in a coffeehouse, or a bar, or on a downtown park bench, and listen to him or her, forming, however briefly, a relationship with this new acquaintance. Then, I ask the students to write up their interview and “publish” it in such a way that they are sharing their ideas with people they don’t know and whose judgment may be surprising. It may be that they will make a new admirer, or a foe who sees through them and detects their errors of sensitivity. In doing so, they will learn from random strangers what neither I nor other professors can teach or convey: about themselves.

And that’s what I wrote to Michael Finkel: that his mixture of detachment from mere opinion and reflection about his own limitations, and even failures, is the true art – of journalism, of portraiture, of humanity.  The “other” is also “you.”

I found Finkel’s email address on my computer – and I am close to totally computer illiterate and ignorant of computer “wisdom” – and conveyed my enthusiasm to him about this fine volume in hopes that he might get back to me ... or not.

This past summer had some happy hours for me, including some delightful glimpses into the natural world. The monarch butterfly that greeted me. The tiny toad in my garden. The young deer emerging from the slim spaces between the weed trees that protect them to stare at me. The rabbits and doves. My dips into secret ponds and quick swims in the blessed ocean the Pope declared to be sacred. But my favorite bit of preparation for the fall was my summer reading of “The Stranger in the Woods,” which taught me what “research” means and how it has to do with layers of meanings and resistance to easy answers.

Finkel’s obsession with the complexity of homelessness has raised the issue to new artistic, literary and philosophical heights.

Get hold of the book (it will be out in paperback before 2017 ends) – it is indeed extraordinary, and tries hard to be “true.”

MIKE FINK (mfink33@aol.com) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.