Few, if any, people claim to have known Robert Harrill well. He left a troubled life and chose instead to make his way within our state’s coastal wilds. Perhaps understanding the man better known as the Fort Fisher Hermit begins with understanding the land that sustained him.
The facts are simple enough: In 1955, a man named Robert Harrill left his home in the Piedmont and hitchhiked 260 miles to Carolina Beach, and then walked south to Fort Fisher, to a place where the land ends. Harrill was not young, already 62 years old. But he made his way to an abandoned World War II artillery bunker in the middle of beaches and marshlands, and he lived there for the next 17 years, leaving behind a difficult life in favor of a simpler, more peaceful existence. His life changed at Fort Fisher. He lived by his wits, scavenging from the beach, fishing and clamming, and he fell in love with the place where he lived. He never worked another day in his life, although he toiled plenty. He got to know the tides, the birds, the fish, the animals (not excluding the human animals whose many donations, dropped in his frying pan, helped him make it through his days). He created what he called a School of Common Sense, a philosophy born of his simple life in nature.
The facts are simple enough, but the stories are not.
“People all turn him into what they want him to be,” says Rob Hill, the filmmaker who made an award-winning documentary about Harrill. “Everyone has their own Hermit.”
To the authorities, Harrill was, at first, a nuisance, a freeloader who gathered trash around a hole in the ground and lived illegally on land that was not his own. For the same folks, a generation later, he was a shining star, eastern North Carolina’s second-largest tourist attraction, they claimed, a living symbol of nature. He was part Thoreau, but also part P.T. Barnum. For locals, he became an occasional party host, his campsite a place to go at the end of a long night of drinking in town to cavort around the fire. For tourists, he could be a showman, playing the part of a hermit while acting in very unhermit-like ways, and you can still watch the grainy film of him posing with his shirt off in winter and goofing around with whomever showed up. His guest register speaks of this contradiction: With some 17,000 visitors a year, he must have rarely had a full day alone.
Some say he was mentally ill and that was what drove him to live as he did. Others became “followers,” romanticizing his Thoreauvian lifestyle, as if his whole life were a symbol, his whole existence a philosophy, a living rebuttal to how most of us live. Some go the opposite way and say that the reason he never actually wrote his book of common sense was that there never was a philosophy of common sense. There is much to support this cynical view: Hardly anyone remembers anything about his philosophy, and not a page of relevant writing was ever discovered.
For some, the most important part of the Hermit’s life was its end, the night of June 3, 1972, when he was murdered by unknown assailants. They hunger still, all these years later, for new clues.
Down near the marsh, to the south of the Hermit’s bunker, the sand seethes with fiddler crabs. Hundreds of them, most with shells no bigger than dimes, scurry up and down the low-tide slope. Ospreys and ibis and pelicans soar overhead. Harrill’s days, or at least some of his days, must have been glorious. Birds call above, and the marsh grass soughs like a field of wheat. The live oaks and scraggly junipers twist their muscular arms, torquing this way and that in defiance of the laws of both gravity and tree. The myrtle bushes mimic them on a lesser scale, and the sides of the path are full of the slithering and creeping of seaside sparrows, snakes, and skinks. Today, the colors on the marsh are so full that you almost feel like you are inside the color.
Experience the fullness of this setting, and you understand the temptation to simply set up your life here. On a clear day, with those colors all around, Harrill must have felt something like joy, must have felt he had surely done something right by moving here. He must have looked out at the swaying grasses and gnarled trees, flowing on and on like an inland sea, and known that his life was a real and good life, just as legitimate, if not more so, than the lives of the folks in town he had left behind.
The landscape has changed dramatically in the nearly 40 years since Harrill lived here, but it must have been in a place like this that he dug up mussels for his dinner. Harrill may have never written a word about his common sense philosophy, but on better days, he must have known exactly what he meant by common sense. Maybe it meant nothing but living more like the animals and birds live, going about your business and getting your food and working and resting in your chosen place just as humans have lived for more than a million years.
Let others build ever bigger houses and ever bigger cars. Harrill would instead live in something close to a cave. Better a humble bunker than a false castle. Better to live in a cement block that doesn’t rise up much taller than he did than to falsely believe that we are much more than this.
If the townspeople sometimes laughed at him, he, on his best days, could laugh right back. He chose to live in a bunker that had housed weapons of war. While the wars outside still raged, and the weapons grew deadlier, he chose instead to listen to the fiddler crabs seethe and the birds sing and the reeds sough.
Maybe that was his common sense. Harrill chose a life that turned its back on a world that turned its back on green places. He turned away from a world that always believes in the fast and the new as it whirls wildly toward its own destruction. He chose instead an older world that was full of wild wonder, and anything but common.
David Gessner is the author of eight books including My Green Manifesto, due out this month, and The Tarball Chronicles, due out in September, regarding the BP oil spill in the Gulf. He teaches in the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he founded the literary journal of place, Ecotone.
East or West: Where do you stand?
These stories appeared as part of the feature exploring eastern and western North Carolina:
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.