by Dawn Potter
This week, the big news around here is the North Pond hermit. You can read all about him in the papers, but the essence of the tale is this: 27 years ago a recent high school graduate vanished from his home in central Maine. His family thought he’d gone to New York City, but no one ever heard from him again.
Meanwhile, along the shores of North Pond, twenty or so miles to the west, owners of camps and vacation cabins began to report odd break-ins. Now and again, this and that would disappear: foodstuffs, clothing, supplies. It’s not like they were being cleaned out; more like the burglar was a borrower, which if you’ve ever read Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s book by the same name, you’ll know is a euphemism for subsistance thievery. A legend began to grow: the culprit was the North Pond hermit. But he was a legend; no one had laid eyes on him or had any evidence that he actually existed–other than the fact that a person was regularly taking their stuff.
Finally someone set up a hidden camera, the first step in breaking the case. And this week, wardens discovered a well-hidden encampment along the shore . . . so well hidden it had been there for 27 years. The North Pond hermit was not a myth. He was a real man, who had lived alone in this place for nearly three decades. He never farmed, fished, or hunted. He spent his days sitting on a plastic bucket watching eagles fly overhead and reading whatever books he’d stolen from the camps. At night he would go out to “borrow” what he needed. He never lit a fire. Once the snows started, he stayed in his camp so that no one ever saw his tracks. He kept warm in layers of sleeping bags.
Now he is in jail, and the wardens have dismantled his home. He doesn’t seem sorry. He says he was getting weary of the business. He is clean and neat and quiet, as he was when he arrived.
Everyone I have spoken to is mesmerized by this story. Even the guys on the local sports radio station can’t stop talking about it. There is a huge outrush of admiration and even a tinge of envy for him. He did not become homeless because he had no other choice. He simply went into the woods. To most people, his thievery has become immaterial.
Like everyone else, I’m fascinated by the North Pond hermit. But as much as anything, I’m intrigued by the way we all want to turn him into literature. Already I’ve referred to the case as a tale. When I first read the news article, I immediately thought, “This should be a ballad.” An acquaintance thought “novel.” My older son, after he read the link I’d sent him, wrote back and said, “Fairy tale.” In yesterday’s paper I saw that someone had already composed a folk song about him. And of course the comparisons to Thoreau are rife.
I’ve been pondering this. Why do we all want to transform what were undoubtedly 27 slow years of silence and tedium into dramatic narrative? I’m sure, eventually, people will start saying, “HBO movie!” or “Northwoods Law!” Maybe they already are. But the initial reactions I’ve heard, even from my tech-soaked son, have reached back to the roots of the oral-written tradition. The North Pond hermit has turned some mysterious key in us.