Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Gathering of Hermits

The instinctive act of humankind was to stand and listen, and learn how the trees on the right and the trees on the left wailed or chaunted to each other in the regular antiphonies of a cathedral choir; how hedges and other shapes to leeward then caught the note, lowering it to the tenderest sob; and how the hurrying gust then plunged into the south, to be heard no more.
-Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd

Robert Harrill, The Fort Fisher Hermit


I’ve just finished reading a novel that will hit the shelves next month, and I can already anticipate the withering reviews. Years ago, a critic who read the manuscript described the “banality and triteness” of the work.

I must confess that I enjoyed it.

Admittedly, my taste in fiction is unsophisticated. Forthcoming reviews of the trite and banal novel will condemn its one-dimensional characters and contrived plot, but it had enough going for it to keep me turning the pages.

That’s just me, though. I’ll pick up ten books of essays before I’ll pick up one novel. And I can stay up half the night reading newspapers from the 1850s, when a work of fiction would put me to sleep after two pages. This unworthy novel was an exception. The author set the story in 1920s Swain County, creating a world where I felt surprisingly at home. To me, it was far more recognizable, hospitable and comprehensible than America 2009 spinning frenetically all around me.

Observing contemporary culture and considering myself in relation to it, I can only conclude that one of us is sane and the other is not. I would not presume to say which is which.

It might be more than coincidence that the author of the novel had fled from the mainstream normality of his own time to find a home, and to find himself, in these mountains. His well-known account of that process resulted in a (non-fiction) book that remains controversial a century later for reasons I don’t fully understand.

The soon-to-be-published novel and the old classic both reveal a great deal about their creator. He was, at times, what you might call a hermit. He had tried to live in a world where he did not belong. He had tried, unsuccessfully, to live with one foot in that world and one foot in a world that made sense to him.

Eventually, it was impossible for him to do anything but leave that divided existence behind and start anew in the Smokies. Whatever the rewards he found here, he continued to struggle with the pain and the complications of his chosen path (if you can even call it a matter of choice).

He had exchanged the impossible for the extremely difficult.

The Hermit (Tarot)


I grew up hearing vague legends about the “Hermit of the Uwharries.” And while hiking the many trails that snaked around near the Yadkin River, I would often imagine him lurking in the woods and, perhaps, watching me from a safe distance until I passed by. That could be ME up there on the hill, I would say to myself, cultivating a rosy view of the hermit’s life. I was young and naive back then.

In his account of the Hermit of the Uwharries, Fred Morgan reports:

The Hermit had a message for the world, but he froze to death not far from his shack before he could give it.


Over in Madison County lives a couple I know only from their website, where they’ve posted this statement:

Raven’s Bread Ministries is dedicated to serving the needs of a small but growing band of people who are dedicating themselves to an ancient calling - that of the spiritual solitary or hermit. In the 1950’s, a revival of the eremitic life began as more and more people discovered their need to live a life of dedication in silence, solitude and simplicity. Seeking the solace of God to counteract the fragmentation of modern life, one by one, individuals began to withdraw from the “madding crowd”. Some dared to call themselves hermits; others simply followed the attraction of the Spirit luring them into a lifestyle which healed their hearts and nourished their spirits. Many feel they are the only person in the world to find the noise, confusion and stress of present-day culture unbearable. They are not - in truth, they are part of an ever-expanding company of people who are embracing eremitical life.

I have nothing but admiration for Raven’s Bread and those who contribute to the journal. They exemplify spirituality, rather than religiosity. Yes, many of us “find the noise, confusion and stress of present-day culture unbearable”...but finding a lifestyle that would heal the heart and nourish the spirit? Ah, there’s the rub!

Peter the Hermit Meeting the Byzantine Emperor


The life of a hermit is a tough life. Take the case of a Pennsylvania hermit, Matthias Berger. On July 20, 1890, the New York Times published a story under the headline “An Old Hermit Murdered – The Recluse First Robbed and Then Killed Near His Cabin.” One sentence jumped out at me:

He was a frequent visitor to Reading and Hamburg, and many people here predicted that he would meet with a tragic end if he persisted in remaining a hermit on the mountain.

In recent years, Charles J. Adams has written about “The Hermit of Hawk Mountain,” calling him:

…an original and an enigma. He was fluent in German and English, known to be skilled in old German calligraphy, and was a fine carpenter…he was a voracious reader and, by all accounts, hardly anti-social.

Matthias was, by all accounts, a gentle and congenial man. When they reached the roughly 60-feet square clearing in the woods and called on the mud hut, they found Matthias Berger quite eager for the visit.

His hovel was about 7 feet square, and as many feet high. A wood stove, a bunk just large enough to accommodate Matthias’ 5-foot-6-inch frame, and a small chest were all the furnishings. Books and various papers were filed in every crack and crevice of the structure, and some tools and utensils were grouped in one corner.

As the visitors marveled at Matthias’ humble abode, their host told them how he had left his native Germany in 1846 after both of his parents had died, how he had hoped to ply his trade as a carpenter in America, and how he found no such work here.

He was unclear about the specific reason he decided to shun society and live a solitary existence on that particular mountain, but he did know and tell that it was Aug. 5, 1861, when he arrived at what would become his home in the thick mountainside forest.

Matthias baked his own breads, gathered fruits and herbs from the woods, and carted fresh water from the nearest spring, a quarter-mile away.

He made friends in the city, but was quick to return to his mountain because the noise in the city gave him headaches.

Despite all that, his killing in the summer of 1890 came as no great surprise to the townspeople.


In North Carolina, Robert Harrill became known as “The Hermit of Fort Fisher” in the 1960s. And while Harrill attracted thousands of visitors, he was also the victim of occasional beatings and other harassment.

Born in Gaffney, SC in 1893, Harrill worked at various jobs in the Carolinas, married and raised a family, but after his wife left him, he was admitted to the state mental hospital in Morganton. While there, he discovered the writings of Dr. William Marcus Taylor, who taught “Bio-Psychology” courses in Spruce Pine, NC. Dr. Taylor’s teachings convinced him to start a new life and, in 1955, he found his way to the marshes near Fort Fisher. He moved into an abandoned ammo storage building, gathered seafood, raised a small garden and conducted sessions of his “School of Common Sense.”

In a 1968 interview, Harrill explained his popularity:

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.

The Fort Fisher Hermit was found dead in June 1972, under mysterious circumstances. Although the evidence suggested that he had been beaten, or was the victim of a cruel prank, officials ruled the cause of his death a heart attack.

The epitaph on his grave marker - “He Made People Think.”

Not a bad legacy for any hermit.


Gary Carden said...

Your quote from Thomas Hardy made me think of one of Donald Harrington's novels that is entitled, "The Choiring of Trees." Do you know this guy? He is a deaf novelist that lives in Kentucky and he knows a good bit about solitude.

GULAHIYI said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I didn't know about him, but that sounds intriguing.

Anonymous said...

Some of us simply hide in plain site.

And nice recommendation from Mr. Carden. I especially like Mr. Harrington's "The Picture Show"

Anonymous said...

I laughed over one thing, though- even a hermit needs a good pair of Wellies.


GULAHIYI said...

You're right. How can you be hermit at the same time you're billed as the second largest tourist draw in the state? No telling how much money was dropped in that frying pan. Maybe I should figure out how to look more Hemingway-esque and get a better spiel going.

Anonymous said...

Hmm- how to look like Papa? Grow a beard, get weatherbeaten and buy some polydactyl cats. Better to pass on the gin blossoms and multiple exotic ex-wives though.


Anonymous said...

I dont know about the "Hermit of the Uwharries" but I knew there there were a few quasi-hermits, and they were all practicing illicit agriculture.


Stephanie Ann said...

I'm like that too. I know of very few fiction books I like and I love reading old newspapers! I found this blog post while writing my own on Mathias Berger. I even had that same newspaper clip on mine. Great minds think alike :D