After a string of failed jobs and one failed marriage, 62 year old Robery Harrill decided he wanted to get away from it all. Like, really away. He hitchhiked 260mi/418km to Fort Fisher state recreation area in North Carolina, where he would become known as the Fort Fisher Hermit. But first, he had to bust out of the mental hospital his in-laws had committed him to, which he did with an old spoon fashioned into a key. My name’s…
We’re all hunkered in our bunkers these days, but even if we’re not sheltering with family or roommates, we have technology connecting us. But sometimes you wanna go where nobody knows your name, because there’s nobody there. We’re talking today about hermits, from the Greek ‘eremos’, meaning wilderness or an isolated place. There are all sorts of reasons why a person might pick up and leave their community behind to live a simple, solitary life. Some people begin their life of solitude when they go into hiding and simply never come back out, such as with Canadian Willard MacDonald who jumped from a troop train in Nova Scotia after being drafted into World War II. Two other men jumped with him, but they were later caught. When you get shanghaied, you also get armed, so MacDonald had a .303 rifle on him, which definitely came in handy in his new home. MacDonald built a one-room shack near Gully Lake in the wilds of Nova Scotia and lived in it for the next 60 years. At first he had to rely on hunting and fishing to survive, but residents of a nearby town soon discovered him and began to feed him and help him obtain supplies. Late in life, MacDonald became the first Canadian to receive a pension without having to sign for it, thanks to a loophole and help from friends. MacDonald died of hypothermia in the woods in 2003 at the age of 87.
Living alone in a cave seems especially practicable when your life has hit rock bottom. Take Valerio Ricetti, Italian apprentice stonemason, who moved to Australia in 1914 at age 16 to escape the war that was about to kick off. He lived with an ex-pat Italian family for a while and worked as a miner until the fateful day he lost all of his money in a brothel. He didn’t spend it, he didn’t get rolled, he literally lost it. Maybe it was his time spent underground that made the cave he found near the town of Griffith so appealing that he called it his “Garden of Eden.” His training in stonemasonry gave him the skills he needed to make his cave homey, completely with a fireplace, sleeping nook, stairways, and even a little “chapel.” He lived in the cave for over two decade, before WWII [showed up to collect.] Ricetti was taken to an internment camp when Italy entered World War II in 1940. He was later released and eventually went to live with his brother in Italy as his health declined.
A cause or the need to make a statement lures still others away from the sacred and inane. Noah Rondeau lived alone in the forest to escape the prospects of what was not yet late stage capitalism. Rondeau was a hunter and trapper who began living alone in the woods of NY, in 1929 at age 46. He called himself the “mayor of Cold River City, population 1.” He’d been practicing, essentially, for the previous 15 years, living alone for part of the year in a 8-foot-by-12-foot cabin. He wrote to a local newspaper that he had “dodged the American labor failure” and lived as a hermit to avoid working for low wages for long hours. He made it 21 years on his own before a hurricane damaged his home beyond repair.
In 2000, Oxford University graduate Emma Orbach moved into a mud hut in western Wales in order to reduce her environmental impact. The round hut is 13ft/4m in diameter, with no electricity or water. She keeps chickens, goats, and horses, and her family is nearby, though they choose to live in a conventional house. Also, Orbach says fairies live in the hut with her as well.
Perhaps not as much a fan of native mud, British newspaper editor Brendan Grimshaw purchased Moyenne Island in the Seychelles in the early 1960s for the amazing bargain of just over $10,000! That’s $87K today, which is a lot of money, unless you’re in the market for an island. After moving there in 1973, Grimshaw planted thousands of trees and also took care of 120 giant tortoises on the island. His stewardship of the environment led to his home being declared a national park in 2008.
Religious devotion has led many a person away to a life of solitude. Christian hermits in the 3rd century lived as ascetics in the Egyptian desert, inspired by Old Testament figures who withdrew from their people to live solitary lives of poverty prayer. These “Desert Fathers” were the basis of Christian monasticism, i.e. monks, nuns, and other devotees living apart from society in various degrees. One of these hermits, Pachomius of the Thebaid, who organized nine monasteries and two convents in the 3rd century CE, is credited as the founder of communal monasticism in the Western world. The word my original sources used was “cenobitic,” which means “a member of a religious group living together in a monastic community,” but made me think of the Cenobites from Hellraiser and I thought other people might too, then you’d be picturing Pinhead in a monk’s cassock and the whole show falls apart. Bonus fact: female Christian hermit who is not part of an order is anchoress, spelled as might spell a female anchor, from the Greek word, anachoreo, meaning “to withdraw or retire.”
You don’t have to look back in time very far to find Christian hermits. In 1993, a 63 year old monk in Georgia, the former Soviet republic, not the state, took up residence on the top of the Kataskhi Pillar, a 130-foot tall limestone rock, only coming down from the pillar once or twice a week. For his first two years on the rock, the monk, Maxime Qavtaradze, slept inside a refrigerator to protect himself from the elements. He now lives in a small cottage on the pillar that some local Christians helped him build. It takes him about 20 minutes to climb down a ladder to the base of the pillar, to the small religious community his monastic pledge inspired. What’s he going to do when he’s too old to make the climb? Easy, Qavtaradze plans to simply die in his cottage.
For an adherent less likely to trigger acrophobia, look to Scotland, where Sara Maitland lives in solitude in house she built herself, overlooking miles of moorland. She is not actually a card-carrying Christian hermit, meaning she isn’t supervised by the local bishop, but she did remove herself from society to feel closer to god. People think being a hermit is selfish, according to Maitlin .”If I say I want to sail a small boat all the way around the world and it will take me two years, everyone says, ‘Oh how exciting!’ If I say I want to go and sit in my house and not talk to anyone for two years, they say ‘Have you got mental health issues?’ or ‘Why are you so selfish?'”
In her book, “A Book Of Silence,” she writes about her experiences of solitude and the different, but very common experiences of people who spend long periods alone. Inhibitions? Gone. It’s not like you have to worry about manners or being polite to please others. Some of us know what that feels like, looking at you my fellow 2pm pajama wearers. Maitlin also reports what she calls “sensory intensification.” “It wasn’t it tasted particularly fabulous in any mysterious sense it just tasted MORE. So porridge tasted of PORRIDGE. … Baths were fabulous – they weren’t just some warm water, they became a completely luxurious experience. When you got cold, you got incredibly incredibly cold, or incredibly wet and just FELT it.” And then she began to hear things. Auditory hallucinations are a common experience for hermits, and Mitlin said she heard a huge choir, singing in Latin, coming from her little house in the middle of nowhere.
It’s Maitlin’s belief that people should purposefully enjoy silence. For many people, the only time you’re are faced with silence is after a negative experience, like a break-up or a death. She thinks it would be better if people learned in childhood to experience solitude as something positive. As someone who was always off on her own, just me and my hyperactive imagination, I agree. There was one Christian hermit who could be said to have been the most Christian hermit who ever hermited, the hermit pope. To tell you all about him is someone much more qualified to pontificate on pontifs than I. Bry from the Pontifacts podcast.
Some are drawn to a life of solitude for personal or spiritual reasons, but what about professional reasons? For a brief time in Georgian era Britain, you might be able to find gameful employment as an ornamental hermit. This new occupation came from the 18th century naturalistic movement in garden design. Famed landscape gardener Lancelot Brown, which is a cool enough name on its own, let alone with ihs nickname of “Capability,” shunned the formal French-style of gardens like you see in period movies: expansive, immaculate lawns, elaborately shaped hedges and geometric gravel paths. He preferred meandering paths past romantic lakes, clumps of trees, and cute little buildings called follies that were built to look like they were old and beginning to degrade. You would also often find a hermitage, be it a one-room cabin of stone or a grotto of twisted roots and branches. If you build a hermitage, you’d better get a hermit to put in it.
Real hermits were hard to find, that’s kind of the point, so wealthy landowners put help wanted ads out, offering room, board, and a little money for those willing to live alone on the grounds so guests could visit them. If you could offer sage-sounding sound bytes, that was a real plus. The Honorable Charles Hamilton placed one such ad for a hermit to live there for seven years in exchange for £700 (roughly $900, or $77,000 in today’s money). It’s not clear if that was for the full seven years, but if you’re meant to stay on the property and your rent and meals are handled, what would you spend it on anyway? Hamilton stipulated that his hermit was not to speak to *anyone, cut his hair, or leave the estate. The fellow that took the job was sacked three weeks in after visiting a local pub.
We have records of people actively seeking this line of work. An ad from 1810 reads:
“A young man, who wishes to retire from the world and live as a hermit, in some convenient spot in England, is willing to engage with any nobleman or gentleman who may be desirous of having one. Any letter addressed to S. Laurence (post paid), to be left at Mr. Otton’s No. 6 Coleman Lane, Plymouth, mentioning what gratuity will be given, and all other particulars, will be duly attended.” No word on how his job search went.
One of the more famous Georgian hermits was Father Francis of Hawkstone Park, Shropshire. On the table of his thatched roof cottage, he displayed symbolic items to ponder while offering his ponderings to visitors, among them a skull, an hourglass, and a globe. Father Francis’s hermitage was such a popular attraction that his employers, the Hill family, built a pub to cater to all the guests.
If a nobleman couldn’t hire a suitable hermit, he might press a family member into service, as botanist Gilbert White did with his brother, the Reverend Henry White, for a garden party. Or the noble might just make it *look like he had a hermit, by making the hermitage look lived-in and adding eccentric accessories. Some took their hankering for a hermit a step further and employed an automaton instead. An automaton isn’t a robot per se, but more like an extremely intricate clockwork figuring. If you’re not familiar with automata, do yourself a favor and set aside an hour to look at some on YouTube. You will be astounded at what the craftsmen could make these figures do. An automaton, of possibly just a dummy, was apparently used at Hawkstone Park to replace Father Francis after his death, though not to convincing effect. According to the equivalent of a Trip Advisor review, “The face is natural enough, the figure stiff and not well managed. The effect would be infinitely better if the door were placed at the angle of the wall and not opposite you. The passenger would then come upon St. [sic] Francis by surprise, whereas the ringing of the bell and door opening into a building quite dark within renders the effect less natural.”
Much like razor scooters, planking, and fidget spinners, ornamental hermits fell out of fashion pretty quickly, possibly for lack of suitable candidates. It’s not completely gone though. In 2017, 58-year-old Stan Vanuytrecht moved into a hermitage in the mountains of Austria. He beat 49 other candidates for the post, despite the lack of internet, running water, or heating. The hermitage, which has been continuously inhabited for the last 350 years, welcomes visitors to come and enjoy spiritual conversation with their resident hermit, and expects plenty of guests.
Guests often bring presents, presents come in boxes and I just got a great box in the mail–advance copies of the YBOF book. If you want to get your hands on a copy before it’s officially out, tune in to what will probably be the only unboxing video I ever do, Friday at 9pm EST, where I’m going to read a book-exclusive section to you. Everyone who comes in to watch is entered to win a signed copy of the book; all you have to do is comment with a fact that you’ve learned from the podcast. Look for a pinned post on FB and T for where to watch… as soon as I figure out how I’m going to do it.
Connecting with nature is a major part of the lives of hermits, but it’s not to the exclusion of science, especially for billy barr. In an old mining shack in the Rockies, barr has recorded daily observations of his environment since 1974: high and low temperatures; total snowfall; snow depth, water content, and density; and when animals emerge, disappear, and migrate. His record-keeping has evolved into an invaluable source of data for scientists studying the effects of climate change. He’s known in the region as “The snow guardian.”
Barr, born in New Jersey, took a short-term job as a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory measuring water quality in the West Elk Mountains, Colorado when he was 21. Gothic, CO is one of the coldest places in the United States and was abandoned after the 1920’s making it one of the loneliest, too. To assuage some of his boredom, Barr began meticulously collecting data on his surrounding. Record-keeping, of all things, had been a life-long hobby of Barr’s. It’s nothing more than quantitative journaling, if you think about it. It must have been good to have something to focus on, to keep him mind off the 8×10 shed he lived in without electricity or water, but with plenty of wild animals trying to move in. But he grew accustomed to the solitude and the stillness. Barr thought he might go to graduate school and then come back before he realized, he was already there, so he might as well stay there. So, Barr began to build his own house, which would eventually be kitted out with solar panels. Twice a week, he skis 10mi/16km to town for groceries. And when he’s not recording the depth of snow twice a day, he relaxes with Bollywood movies and a cup of tea.
It was only towards the end of the 1990s that a scientist with the RMBL learned of the existence of barr’s records, all 12,000 of them. The information in them has been used since then in dozens of studies on climate change and its effect on plant and animal populations in the region. It represents an invaluable record, for when barr began the record, the world wasn’t yet concerned with global warming. What this accidental meteorologist recorded is worrying: temperatures increased rapidly, winters are much shorter, and plants and animals in the mountains are among those most affected. I hardly need to tell you of the troubling trends in the data: 67 record highs in the last three winters alone, 8 fewer days with snow on the ground, which can seriously mess with the timing for plants and animals, and 48% of record highs are from the past 10 years. You can see some of the 44 years of data for yourself on Barr’s website, gothicwx.org. And if you find any other hermits with websites, post it on social media and tag the show. Barr says he’ll stay in his cabin in Gothic as long as he can, but definitely at least 5 more years, so he has an even 50 years of data.
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If you’re looking for a peaceful place to vacation, you could do worse than the area around the Kennebec River in Maine. Residents, vacation home owners, and campground guests alike enjoy the temperate summer weather among the small lakes that feed into the river, hiking, fishing, camping, being repeatedly robbed. You’ve got to take the bad with the good, I suppose. From the mid-80’s to 2013, about once a week, one of the area cabins would be robbed. Valuables and cash were never taken. Canned goods, on the other hand, batteries, coolers, winter clothes, and other useful things were likely to vanish. Property damage was minimal, but the residents were on edge. Was it teenagers, locals, visitors, Bigfoot? When people noticed the pattern of what was missing–things that could help you survive in the wild–they began to speculate that a hermit in the woods was the blame. Strange as the theory was, they were right.
In 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight, who had had an entirely unremarkable upbringing an hour away, was driving home one day and he just … kept driving. Something compelled him to drive to the woods, where he got out of his car and walked away. He has a backpack, the clothes on his back, and no wilderness training. He’d never even been camping. But he felt compelled to go and live in the woods, which he did, entirely alone, for 27 years. Well, almost entirely; he said “Hi” to a hiker once. He strung a tarp between some trees and set up house-keeping. He was only a few minutes’ walk from one of the hundreds of summer cabins that dotted the area, yet the spot he had chosen for his new home was completely hidden. Despite an utter lack of preparation, Knight must have been a quick study, because he survived handily in the Maine woods, which is saying something when you learn that he wouldn’t light a fire during New England winters, when temperatures easily get to -20°F/-30°C, for fear of being spotted. Instead, he would wake up in the coldest part of the night and walk around his camp to stay warm until morning.
Knight was good at not being seen. He survived by stealing the supplies he needed from the homes and cabins in the area. He only took practical items, a few at a time. Before you lean too far over to his side, I should mention that he committed over 1,000 burglaries. Many people were robbed multiple times. Knight committed so many burglaries that people began to see a pattern of his preferences. For example, he’d definitely steal peanut butter, but he’d never touch tuna fish. While he was no criminal mastermind, he never left the police much to go on, and they were frustrated. One officer, Sgt Terry Hughes, installed a motion-activated camera in the kitchen of a campground a mile from his house. Finally, in the dead of night, the alarm from the camera went off. There on the black and white video was a middle-aged man copping comestibles and putting them in a black trash bag. Sgt Hughes raced over and caught the man that people had known only as the urban-legendary North Pond Hermit.
At first, the suspect refused to talk, but police were eventually able to coax his story out of him. According to Knight, there wasn’t any incident that inspired him to leave society behind; he felt a tug, like a gravitational force, and he let his body follow it. The majority of his days were spent doing nothing. Not a lazy nothing or a bored nothing–according to Knight, he was never bored once–but a peaceful, purposeful nothing. He didn’t miss people, though if you hear him recount the emotionally-reserved nature of his family growing up, that’s not terribly surprising. Knight said he didn’t like having to steal, he only did it for survival, and even though he’d done it many times, his heart would pound and he wanted it over as quickly as possible.
Knight’s story was not only local news, but was picked up across the country. People sent money for his bail, offers of help, and even a marriage proposal. I’d do an episode on women who marry criminals they didn’t know, but I don’t think I want to learn that thought process. While he had folk hero status with some people, Knight was still a criminal and the locals weren’t about to forget that. He was sentenced to seven months in jail, much of which was waived for time served awaiting sentencing, three years probation, ordered to pay $2,000 in restitution to victims, and complete a Co-Occurring Disorders Court Program. This progressive program is designed specifically to handle people with substance abuse problems and mental health disorders. Doctors who examined Knight concluded he likely had Asperger’s syndrome, which made it difficult for him to relate to other people. Even the prosecutor agreed a light sentence was in order. Knight fulfilled every last requirement of the court, but that did mean he wasn’t allowed to return to his camp, which had been cleared away by law enforcement.
And that’s.. The Fort Fisher Hermit was not a hermit in the strictest sense of the word. Harrill was far from isolated, and had many visitors every year. According to his guest registry, a notebook held down by sea shells, recorded a total of over 100,000 visitors from all fifty states and at least 20 foreign countries. Harrill was actually the second biggest tourist attraction in North Carolina by number of visitors for a time. Harrill explained his popularity to a reporter in 1968: “Everybody ought to be a hermit for a few minutes to an hour or so every 24 hours, to study, meditate, and commune with their creator … millions of people want to do just what I’m doing, but since it is much easier thought of than done, they subconsciously elect me to represent them, that’s why I’m successful …” Remember…Thanks…