Off Walden Pond

The many myths and radical truths of Henry David Thoreau


If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

—Henry David Thoreau

For Earth Day next week, you can sit back in front of a radio, TV or computer to watch Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau, a play about Henry David Thoreau’s cushy retreat in the woods. Any reader who blanches at that “cushy” adjective may be laboring under a misconception about just how far into the woods this earth-loving legend actually ventured before sitting down to write. It was a breezy mile and a half from his mom’s house. He suffered no deprivations by the pond, being close enough for parties, drop-in visitors, food baskets and frequent walks into the town of Concord, Mass.

Popular myth holds that Thoreau roughed it, that his dwelling was crude. Not so. It wasn’t even rustic for the times. It was merely simple, a one-room house he built using conventional materials and construction. All his references to cabin, hermitage and hut were tongue-in-cheek. Thoreau’s place on Walden Pond was merely a 27-year-old writer’s site for a tryst with deliberate living.

What he wrote during his two years in comfort on the geographical and intellectual fringe of Concord society became sacred writ to environmentalists who followed him. Though individuals have gone much farther into the woods physically, few have gone further into reflective reverie about the human portion of nature than old Henry David, who inspired misunderstanding both during his life and after.

Even E. B. White’s favorable review of Walden a century after its publication implies that Thoreau’s brilliance was a kind of blundering, that he entered the territory of original thought “very likely without quite knowing what he was up to.” I would argue that all artists blunder into brilliance. Thoreau knew this much at least; that he was a seeker of truth and advocate of justice. That he would wish to defend the sanctity of nature was no different than his abolitionist stance on slavery, and the work he did to care for night passengers on Concord’s underground railroad.

I’ve watched a review copy of Walden: A Ballad of Thoreau, and though I won’t spoil it by a detailed review, I will warn you not to judge the play by the introduction or the afterward, in which the folk-singing playwright Michael Johnathon appears in a crumpled plaid shirt to give folksy speeches. There was just a bit of the gag factor there for me when it became unclear whether the play was actually going to be about Thoreau or about Johnathon himself.

But when the introduction ended and the play began, I was much relieved and entertained. The major dialogue is (thankfully) taken from writings by Emerson and Thoreau, and the simple, staged play employs G-rated, easy-target levity with almost all the laughs at Thoreau’s expense. Watch the play, but keep in mind that Thoreau was not quite the eccentric and socially challenged doofus depicted. He was actually a funny, musical and brilliant guy, as well as the country’s first socio-environmental justice advocate.

Among Thoreau’s most radical proclamations, founded on simple observation, is that humans and nature are inextricably bound, that nature is not just stuff lying around for us to use. After more than a century, this basic concept—like the one about each human life having dignity and deserving freedom—is still difficult for many people to grasp.


But not everyone. The environmental movement is inextricably bound with the social-justice movement. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. found in Thoreau’s writings the theory of nonviolent resistance. “No other person,” King wrote in his autobiography, “has been more eloquent and passionate about getting his ideas across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.” The socio-environmental movement is rooted in just such “creative protest.”

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote in Walden. In any location, living so deliberately remains today an act of civil disobedience.

  ‘Walden: A Ballad of Thoreau’ will be streamed into schools across North America through Earth Day TV, on Wednesday, April 22, Check local listings for TV screenings.


Sonoma County Library