The Hermit's Hidden Perch

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  12/03/2002

From his secret perch in the woods, the hermit watches the morning light spread over the pond and seep through a patch of trees, sprinkling a golden haze over his humble home. At night, when the raccoons leave their lair in the beech tree and the birds nest until morning, he wraps himself in a heap of blankets and takes comfort in the stillness.

A self-proclaimed philosopher, Donald Keaney revels in escaping the quiet desperation of the city. But unlike another solitude-savoring New Englander, who more famously sought answers to life's persistent questions beside another pond in the woods, the shaggy 61-year-old hasn't left, nor given up its many conveniences.

For the past 17 years, Keaney, the son of a French horn player for the Boston Symphony, has found a way to lead a rustic existence in the middle of Boston - living in a self-made tent in the woods near Jamaica Pond, less than a mile from the middle-class Brookline home where he grew up.

Like Henry David Thoreau, whom he has long admired, Keaney loathes government and can't be bothered with social conventions, such as paying rent or concealing his opinions. And though he has enough money, he has little desire for more than the barest of essentials - a plastic tarp for a roof, a half-dozen heavy blankets, and the 11 newspapers he reads every day and stacks around him by the thousands.

"Living outside with nature means living in the most intimate way," says Keaney, who was raised by a Jewish mother and Irish father and calls himself a "Lepre-Cohen." "It's peaceful, no one bothers me, and there's no better place to read than under natural light."

One of a hard-core group of homeless who refuse to sleep in city shelters, Keaney and about 300 wizened men and a few women live outdoors throughout the year, doing what they can to survive Boston's hottest days and coldest nights.

While he spends much of his time alone in the woods, Keaney makes his way downtown nearly every day, dining in soup kitchens, speaking out at rallies and lectures on college campuses, attending classical concerts, and collecting his newspapers. He also visits friends - a few homeless guys he buys food for and talks politics with. And occasionally he ventures to Watertown to see his sister, who hosts him for holidays such as Passover and receives his subscriptions to a half-dozen conservative magazines, including The National Review and Weekly Standard.

Esther Keaney, an Ivy-League educated accountant with her own business, isn't sure how her brother ended up on such a different path. He doesn't do drugs or drink, she says, and as a beneficiary of a trust fund left by a wealthy aunt who worked as a secretary for Fidelity founder Edward C. Johnson, he can certainly afford an apartment.

"I don't believe there's any mental illness, though it's possible," says his sister, who has urged him to find a more permanent place to live. "I just think he genuinely likes living in the woods."

Donald Keaney began sleeping outdoors when he was young and went to camp in Maine, where as a gifted clarinetist he won awards for his chamber music. Over the years, he sought more isolation, living for months at a time in New Hampshire's White Mountains and the Maine woods. Yet the freedom of living alone, on his own terms, hasn't always translated into an idyllic life.

Like anyone without a home, he has suffered his share of indignities. Thieves have stolen his sleeping bags, pillaged his tents, and walked off with his blankets. Sometimes, when he can't make it back to the woods, he spends the night in vestibules for ATM machines. And at least once, he says, someone tried to kill him while he was asleep.

"While we have a lot in common, Thoreau and I have led very different lives," he says. "I'm not a romantic."

His sister worries he's not taking care of himself. He doesn't shower much, his teeth are rotting, his nails are long and dirty, and his beard and hair are unruly. None of that bothers Keaney. He's more concerned about staying warm, which he does by wearing layers of heavy wool sweaters, staying out of sight, and keeping abreast of current events.

A self-described "paleo-conservative," who believes in less government, less immigration, and less politically correct public debate, he spends much of his day poring over his newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, the Globe, Herald, Harvard Crimson, Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times, Post, and Daily News.

When he's done reading, he uses some of the papers to insulate his tent, little more than a tarp upheld by twine. The rest he keeps for future reference, neatly stacking them on small branches and in plastic bags. His collection of tens of thousands of newspapers - some of which are now covered in moss - dates back to 1991.

"I'm someone who speaks the truth," he says. "You have to know what's going on to speak the truth."

One truth he prefers not to publicly acknowledge is his precise location in the large stretch of woods. The last thing he wants, he says, is more visitors.

While Keaney's home is camouflaged by a thicket of oaks, pines, and hemlock trees, the property owner knows he's there. But without any complaints about his presence, and sure after all these years he's not doing any harm, they let him be.

"He likes to be alone and we don't want to interfere with him," says James Karloutsos, who maintains the property which Keaney asked not to have identified. "As long as he takes care of the environment and himself, we let him live his way."

Social workers who know Keaney say unlike many other visitors to soup kitchens, he helps wash dishes and mop the floor after meals.

"He's quiet, conscientious, and very much his own person," says Macy DeLong, executive director of Solutions at Work, a social services provider in Cambridge, which has given Keaney tickets to classical concerts.

On a recent morning in the woods, with freezing rain pelting his plastic tarp and a cutting wind rustling his newspapers, Keaney hunches over a recent copy of The Wall Street Journal. Wrapped in a heavy wool sweater and several military-grade blankets, his solitude interrupted, he talks about the "illusions" of liberals, the "brilliance" of the Constitution, and his "Manichaean" or good-vs.-evil view of nature.

"Living in the woods, you can see life is very tragic," he says, explaining how he watches hawks pounce on other birds and raccoons chase other raccoons. "It can be no different with people. I don't know if I'm a misanthrope, but we have a lot of limitations."

Offering an extra sweater and blanket to his visitors, he flashes the first, if slight, smile when asked if he's content with his choices. He leans closer, pauses, and says:

"We are what we are, and we are responsible for who we are."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe