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12 minute read

Don Henley’s Two Waldens

Artists, transcendentalists, abolitionists, civil rights advocates, and revolutionaries have been drawn to Concord from its very earliest days. There’s something in the air here…or perhaps it’s the ancient waters of places like Walden Pond…that moves a person to take action to protect this place. We sat down with musician and passionate conservationist Don Henley, a founding member of the legendary band The Eagles, to learn more about what moved a native Texan to save a place that was precious to one of his own role models – Concord’s Henry David Thoreau.

You have had a brilliant career – both as a founding member of The Eagles, and also as a solo artist. Where do you draw the inspiration for your music?

I get ideas and inspiration from lived experience. This includes literature, poetry, film, music, nature, travel, and human interaction. Sometimes that experience is negative, and sometimes it’s positive. Attentiveness is a key component of creativity – the kind of focus and concentration that Thoreau demonstrated during his time at Walden.

Thoreau said, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

We are living in an age of distraction. We’re constantly being bombarded by myriad stimuli, most of them electronic. In order to concentrate, to hear that “small voice” inside us, we have to learn how to filter, to buffer. Getting out into nature is one of the best ways to clear the head and renew the spirit. I’ve found that ideas for songs come to me when I’m working with my hands, doing relatively simple tasks like washing dishes, gardening, or chopping firewood.

How have you stayed connected to your music during COVID?

Touring came to a screeching halt in March of 2020. This might seem odd, but the pandemic has given me a welcome respite from my music and provided an opportunity to listen to other people’s music, both old and new. When The Eagles are constantly touring, or recording, it’s possible to get oversaturated with music. In those times, it’s good to have other pursuits: gardening, reading, or watching documentaries. Like many of my musical peers, I’ve not felt particularly inspired to write or record during this past year. The logistics were too complicated, too risky, and I’m not a fan of remote digital performances.

I think that many authors, poets, and songwriters are in a gestational stage, still trying to process and get perspective on the past 18 months. Some interesting material should come out of these times.

My bandmates and I very much look forward to resuming live performances in the fall. On May 1st of next year, the band will mark its 50th anniversary of hitting the airwaves, and we hope to be able to make a victory lap.

What would you most like people to know about you as a musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer?

The ‘Music Business’ is a tough business. I’ve been in the thick of it for over a half century now, and I’ve learned a lot ... some of it the hard way. But, I am grateful for all of it ... the opportunities I’ve been given, the extraordinary people I’ve met, the places I’ve traveled, the wider perspective, the steadfastness of the fans, and the conservation work, including The Walden Woods Project and the Caddo Lake Institute (my own Walden), that I’ve been able to do as a result of my success. I’m a working musician, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and an environmental activist, but I am first and foremost a citizen ... a voting, tax-paying, concerned citizen of these United States, and I didn’t relinquish that citizenship when I became a famous recording artist. I think that each and every one of us has a duty to help care for our natural environment, even if it’s something as simple as not throwing your fast-food wrapper out the car window.

Don Henley and Billy Joel performing at The Walden Woods Project’s 2007 fundraiser in New York City.
©Larry Busacca

You are a founding member of The Walden Woods Project – how did a Texas native find such a deep connection to this particular piece of nature? Why Concord? What drew you here?

I found the literature long before I set foot in the place that inspired it. Thoreau’s famous essay “Civil Disobedience” was an influence in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, the protests of the war in Vietnam, and among the Baby Boomers who sparked the back-to-the-land movement as they sought to escape the strife of cities and embrace a more bucolic lifestyle. It was during this time (1968-1969) that I picked up a copy of Walden (or, Life in the Woods). Some of Thoreau’s principles in Walden and “Civil Disobedience” still directly relate to today’s social reform issues and the climate change crisis.

I first traveled to Concord in the wake of a cable news report about an impending real estate development. A sizeable office park was slated for a historically significant site in Walden Woods, called Brister’s Hill. Brister Freeman, born in 1744, was enslaved in Concord for the first 30 years of his life.

After serving in the American Revolution, he was freed and, in 1785, purchased an acre of land in Walden Woods. He and his family were among a number of formerly enslaved people who lived in the area. Thoreau, an early abolitionist, mentions Brister Freeman in Walden, as well as the apple orchard planted by Brister.

My many visits to Concord over the past three decades have served to heighten my appreciation of history, especially American history and, by extension, world history. The area residents that I’ve met are dedicated curators of their local backstory. History, at least in some respects, is not settled. It’s in a state of flux. This holds true for all of America. Thoreau himself was inconsistent and self-contradictory – he was a squatter (on his mentor Emerson’s land), but he was also a Harvard graduate, a gifted gardener, a boat-builder, a carpenter, a scientist, a surveyor, a free thinker, an early abolitionist, a keen observer, and meticulous keeper of the particulars of his observations in nature. He was a work in progress. His mentor, Emerson, famously said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”

To quote the late writer, Wallace Stegner, “Thoreau could be wrong, but when he was right, he was often spectacularly right, and he was, right or wrong, American to the marrow. But it was in his love of wildness, his perception that ‘In Wildness is the preservation of the world,’ that he spoke his nation’s mind at its best and highest reach.

There is little of that in Walden – he was learning it there, but did not fully formulate it until later – but Walden Woods is the proper place to commemorate it.

Walden is the place for Thoreau’s monument as surely as Washington is the place for the temples we have erected to Jefferson and Lincoln, although Thoreau would want no such sculpted shrines. This little lake within site of the tracks and sound of the train whistle should be part of the American iconography. We need no marble columns. The pond itself, and the creatures that find life in it and in the woods that surround it, are the most fitting monument for the man who took so much from them, and gave it back in unforgettable terms to his countrymen, and to the world.”

Ken Burns and Don Henley at the premiere of the Thoreau film Ken executive produced for the Walden Pond Visitor Center.
©Matt Burne

When did you first discover Walden Woods? What was your first impression? What moved you to want to help protect this place?

My first visit to Walden Woods was in March of 1990. As we crunched through the snowy woods, I remember thinking that the trees were smaller than I had expected. I would eventually learn that most of the timber in Walden Woods had been cut, more than once, by the time Thoreau built his cabin near the pond. Thoreau bemoans the disappearance of old-growth forests in the pages of Walden. But, I soon came to understand that modern-day Walden Woods not being a pristine, untrammeled wilderness is not the point. Acclaimed American novelist, E.L. Doctorow put it most eloquently: “Walden is the material out of which Thoreau made his book, as surely as he made his house from the trees he cut there, and he made his book from the life he lived there. The pond and woods are the visible, actual, real source of Thoreau’s discovered, invisible truths, the material from which he made not only his house, but his revelation.

We need both Waldens - the book and the place. We are not all spirit any more than we are all clay; we are both and so we need both: You’ve read the book, now see the place. You have to be able to take the children there and to say, ‘This is it – this is the wood old Henry wrote about. Do you see?’ You give them what is rightfully theirs, just as you give them Gettysburg because it is theirs.”

What would you most like people to know about you as a nature conservationist?

My conservation awareness began early, and somewhat unwittingly. My parents and grandparents, all of whom had lived through the Great Depression, saved things, re-used them: canning jars, milk jugs, twine, bacon fat, or even pieces of fabric that were turned into quilts. As a boy, I followed along behind my father as he plowed his winter cover crops under, thereby enriching the tilth of the topsoil and eliminating the need for commercial fertilizers. He also applied cow and chicken manure to his crops. He was an organic gardener long before the term became popularized. Dad also planted a number of trees on our property and was always sure to include me in the process. Those trees are mature now, and serve as a touchstone for me. I think my father would be pleased to know that The Walden Woods Project operates an organic farm in Concord. Sometimes, life comes full circle.

This is very simple, basic stuff compared to how we think about conservation today. But these experiences and observations, preserved on the bridge of memory, were the beginnings of my personal conservation ethic.

Don Henley and Ali Taghdarreh from Iran (who translated Walden into Farsi) in The Walden Woods Project library.
©Matt Burne

What would you recommend a musician to absolutely see or do here in Concord?

I suggest a visit to The Concord Museum to see the flute owned and played by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John. Many people don’t realize that Thoreau enjoyed music. I also suggest catching a performance at The Umbrella Arts Center, a wonderful small venue here in Concord. It showcases a range of talent, including my friend Lyle Lovett who performed there a few years ago.

What would you recommend an environmentalist absolutely see or do here in Concord?

The new Walden Pond Visitor Center is a must. It offers some wonderful interactive exhibits. The Brister’s Hill interpretive trail (called Thoreau’s Path on Brister’s Hill) is stewarded by The Walden Woods Project. It is an excellent choice, as is the Thoreau cabin replica near the Visitor Center parking lot. Certainly, taking a walk around Walden Pond out to Thoreau’s original cabin site and using our new, free app — walden.org/education/the-walden-pondand-woods-app/ — for interpretation at various points of interest along the trail is a great experience. Thoreau and Emerson’s grave sites at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery are very poignant. Last but not least... go see the exhibits in The Walden Woods Project’s library (by appointment only).

What else would you like people to know about you, your work, or Walden Woods?

The most important thing for people to know about The Walden Woods Project is that our work here is not finished. We just entered our 32nd year at a time when millions have sought refuge from the pandemic by reconnecting with the natural world. In recent months, much has been said and written about the importance of nature to our physical and spiritual wellbeing – the same message Thoreau was imparting more than 150 years ago.

Visitation at Walden Pond was up dramatically with over 600,000 visitors in 2020. The land and trails stewarded by The Walden Woods Project were used by an unprecedented number of people last year.

The line between preservation and public use is often a fine one, and in our efforts at Walden, we strive to maintain a balance. While many parts of Walden Woods are now protected, a 35-acre Concord landfill is just a stone’s throw from Walden Pond. Town officials and residents have debated the future of the landfill for decades. The Walden Woods Project has made several attempts to secure protection for the landfill to ensure that one day it can be restored to as natural a condition as possible.

I believe that with challenges come opportunities, and the landfill is a case in point. It all comes down to the legacy we want to leave our children and grandchildren. Surely, the good people of Concord can meet the challenge, with resolve, to protect and restore this gateway to Walden Woods.

As the world’s population grows and societal pressures mount, more and more people will seek the solace of nature. The problem is that there is less and less nature to go around. In large part, that is why I founded The Walden Woods Project – to help preserve one of the most iconic landscapes in the world. I would invite your readers to join in that effort. Together, we do make a difference for the next generation.

The Walden Woods Project is a nonprofit organization, headquartered near Walden Pond. We preserve the land, literature and legacy of Thoreau, and protect 175 acres in Walden Woods, much of which had been threatened with commercial development. Our conservation work continues at other key sites facing development threats. The land we steward at Brister’s Hill and Bear Garden Hill in Concord are popular destinations for residents and visitors, alike. The Walden Woods Project Farm on Route 2 offers healthy, locally grown produce.

Our programs for students, teachers and the general public link Thoreau’s philosophy to urgent challenges of our time – including climate change and human rights – and foster engagement in environmental and social reform initiatives.

The Walden Woods Project library welcomes the public to advance their understanding of the life and literature of Thoreau.

We are the state-designated “Friends of Walden Pond” organization, furthering public support for the care of Walden Pond and for public programming at the Walden Pond State Reservation.

Donations to the Walden Woods Project are tax deductible to the extent permitted by law. Please give at Walden.org