Ask a Hermit

by Holly A. Case (Interviewer) and Tom J. W. Case (Hermit) 

The following is part of a written interview with Tom, a pilot who has largely withdrawn to a small piece of land in rural South Dakota. 

Interviewer: So first of all, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I know a lot of readers are interested to learn more about hermit life, but are probably thinking: “How can I find a hermit?” or “Would a hermit even want to talk with me?” or “If I were a hermit, probably the last thing I’d want is to be pestered with questions. Isn’t that what hermits are trying to avoid?” As you can see, people (not me, of course, but other people) tend to make a lot of assumptions about hermits without really knowing what they’re about. So it’s especially great to have this opportunity. Thank you so much! [pause—awkward silence] Right, so my first question is: How did you become a hermit?

Hermit: I think the relevance is in the “becoming,” more so than the arrival at some particular state—the state of being a hermit in this case. The word hermit puts a bit of a full-stop at the end of what might otherwise be a transcendent experience. In my case, however, if indeed I have become a hermit, it goes something like this: I think we all have an inner hermit living in our minds, very much alone, and each person’s internal processes of hermit-thinking and rationalization are adapted and transmuted into the ways they ultimately interact with the outside world. To put into practice the being of a hermit, then, all I have done is allow the inner hermit to exist on its own terms outside of my mind and body. Subsequently I act a hermit in the outside world in much the same, solitary way as one might behave inside their own mind. The full release of said inner hermit, however, is ripe with responsibility. At least it seems so. In much the same way one cannot just decide one day that stop signs are not to their liking, disregard them without consequence, it only seems fair to fully act oneself in relative solitude so as to not conflict with crossing traffic.

Interviewer:  Do hermits brush their teeth?

Hermit: The short answer is yes. Certainly not for vanity, certainly not after every meal, but because teeth are critical and easy to reach. It is possible to tell when teeth need a good brushing, and that is when they get it. Perhaps once per week, sometimes more, sometimes less. In the meantime, chewing on things like twigs and coarse grass stems, consuming apple cider vinegar (followed by clean water), does an amazing job. I imagine every hermit has their own routine.

Interviewer: Your neighbors on all sides—if I recall correctly—are farmers. How would you describe the hermit-farmer dynamic?

Hermit: Encounters with the farmers are few and far between, but during the most recent one I referred to myself as “the hippie who lives in the Airstream,” to which the immediate, stone-faced reply was: “Hippies can’t afford Airstreams.” No more than just that. Still have no idea what it meant.

Farmers seem to be largely offended by an offer to purchase anything, or anyone having an advantage in the realm of favors granted. They will give you anything, and they will graciously accept what you give them, but they will never ask for a thing and seem to hate things being offered.

One neighbor, “Pepper,” once told me after I offered for the 53rd time to help him with something, that it is not in his nature to take someone up on such an offer, but if someone shows up and does something useful, that is fine. I concluded one must simply know when, and where, and how one is needed is all.

Pepper also gave me an antique chicken crate, and when I asked if I could give him something for it he was visibly distraught.

I asked my other neighbor if I could possibly buy or lease a small bit of land which adjoins mine, and after three months of “thinking about it,” the answer was “No, but just take the fence down and use it however you like.” The matter has been pressed since then, by the neighbor, as if I were in breach by not utilizing what was offered. Perhaps it was an order.

When they look at the ground, you have violated some etiquette, as I learned when I ran out to help stop some rogue calves running down the road. After the calves were secured, the farmer’s head went down and he told me all about the ways to screw up such a procedure—all of which I had accomplished—then he said: “Good talking to you,” and he left. In hindsight, I had witnessed this behavior many times before. Whoops!

Once, when I was preparing to drive an absolutely gigantic tractor for them during the bean harvest, the instruction consisted of, “You can fly jets, you’ll be fine. Just don’t break or hit anything.” None of the “this lever does this, that lever does that” nonsense. And it was not just driving the tractor. My task was to pull alongside one of two moving combines and position the grain wagon under their chute, driving inches away from them and matching their speed exactly as they unloaded about 15,000 pounds of beans, then anticipate and position for the next combine to fill up, then maneuver the wagon alongside the waiting truck and distribute 30,000 pounds of beans evenly along its fifty-three foot length. There were many levers what needed using, chutes and shafts and augers, and many, many things to hit and to break. I had no idea how to operate this thing or how not to break it, and it was only by being left completely alone with the blue behemoth, in the middle of a field, that I figured it out—just in time to chase down the first full combine. Not breaking it or anything else in its proximity was but a fluke of the “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” kind. I still cannot say what flying and tractor operation have in common, except the importance of not breaking or hitting anything, but it ultimately went well, I guess, as evidenced by the absence of a debriefing of the sort with the calves.

I have been pulled from ditches in zero visibility (couldn’t say how they knew I was stuck), dug out of feet of snow, had straw bales show up mysteriously in my absence (after mentioning that I needed to get some straw), been told that dinner is in fifteen minutes (implying that I WILL be there), received Christmas cards, burritos wrapped in foil, melons and corn by the ton, and all at the exact moments they were handiest. It is uncanny how they seem to know better than I what and how I am doing. They obviously keep an eye out, like some kind of superheroes, and do not interfere but to help.

Farmers just have a way about them, and I like it. Still, after five concentrated years of observation, I cannot put my finger on how the whole thing works. It just does.

Oh! and for God’s sake, be prepared to answer the question of how much rain you got, to the nearest hundredth of an inch, from each shower. Nothing kills an already almost nonexistent conversation faster than an incorrect or incomplete response to “THE” question. I once forgot to empty my rain gauge after the previous shower, rendering the current reading inaccurate. Never again. I had to go into hiding until it rained again for fear of both telling the truth and of lying.

Interviewer: Thank you!

If you have a question for Tom, you can send it to [email protected] (subject heading: Ask a Hermit).