NAKED IN THE WOODS by Jim Motavalli


Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of the Frontier Fakery
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An absorbing tale of one man’s retreat into the Maine woods, padded with a healthy history of the back-to-nature movement.

E, the Environmental Magazine editor Motavalli (Breaking Gridlock: Moving Toward Transportation That Works, 2001, etc.) spotlights Joseph Knowles, who in August 1913 at age 43 removed his clothing to the fanfare of well-wishers and journalists from the sponsoring Boston Post and stepped into the Maine Dead River wilderness for a solitary two-month sojourn. An artist, former hunting guide, Navy man and Maine native, Knowles left dispatches along the way, written in charcoal on birchbark parchment, detailing his experiences subsisting on native fruits and vegetables, killing deer and even a bear in a deadfall trap for meat and clothing. Emerging on Oct. 4 across the Canadian border (he had failed to secure the proper hunting permits and was being tracked by American officials), he was an instant celebrity. He published a book about his sensational adventure (Alone in the Wilderness) and toured for a few weeks in vaudeville. As Motavalli explains in this refreshing if rather meandering work, Knowles’s stunt dovetailed nicely with America’s growing interest in nature, as people moved from farms to factories and began to long nostalgically for the wilderness. It was also the era of yellow journalism, and in November 1913 the Boston Sunday American published an exposé charging that “Nature Man” had in fact been luxuriating in a log cabin for two months with a “manager,” later identified in a 1938 New Yorker piece as journalist Michael McKeogh. It hardly mattered, opines the good-natured author, who uses Knowles’s stunt to digress on such topics as the establishment of the character-building Boy Scouts; consciousness-raising by naturalists John Muir, Ernest Thompson Seton and John Burroughs; and the sensational life of Ishi, “the last wild Indian,” whose emergence from the California woods made headlines two years before Knowles did.

Tasty, light nourishment for nature buffs.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-786-72008-8
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Da Capo
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2007