Don Henley opens up about Thoreau

Don Henley
Danny Clinch
Don Henley

Even ardent fans of the Eagles may not know that the last track on the band’s watershed 1976 album, “Hotel California,” was inspired by Henry David Thoreau.

Don Henley said, of “The Last Resort,” “When I play it in concert, I jokingly say, afterward, ‘Just another song about manifest destiny. I know you hear ’em all the time.’ ”

Henley (pictured) is profoundly moved by the thoughts and writings of the Concord-born transcendentalist — including Thoreau’s views on manifest destiny. So much so that the founding member of the Eagles founded the Walden Woods Project in 1990. The nonprofit aims to protect the historic woods near Walden Pond from encroaching development, and raises funds for educational programs, exhibits, and more.


Henley had the idea for a short film about his hero to play on constant loop at the Walden Pond Visitor Center. So he asked his filmmaker friend Ken Burns to make one.

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The result is “Walden,” a new short film executive produced by Burns, exploring the life, writings, and continuing impact of Thoreau.

The film premieres at Boston College Nov. 8 at a screening hosted by Henley, Burns, and Burns’ proteges, Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers — the brothers were tapped by Burns to make the film.

Following the screening, they’ll discuss Thoreau in a session moderated by CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

Proceeds from the event will go toward the Walden Woods Project.


Narrated by Robert Redford, with Kevin Conway voicing Thoreau, the film was produced by Julie Coffman and includes interviews with David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, E.O. Wilson, Terry Tempest Williams, Bill McKibben, and Arun Gandhi., grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

Burns and Henley met in Dallas about 10 years ago through a mutual friend.

“We found we had similar passions for American history,” Burns, 64, told the Globe in a phone interview.

“For those of us who spend our lives trying to reap our harvest from the vineyards of American history, we find something so essential in Thoreau. He speaks to modern things we’re only now catching up with — climate change, civil disobedience, his suspicion of the power of the almighty dollar. All these things are the existential questions of today.”

Henley’s roots with Massachusetts conservation go back decades.


One day in 1990, the Texan was cooking when he heard a CNN news report about impending development near Walden Woods.

“It said there would be an ‘office park’ — one of my favorite oxymorons — built a stone’s throw from Walden Pond. This alarmed me,” said Henley, 70. He jotted down the names of the men interviewed, and later found one through directory assistance.

“He’d never heard of my music career, and I didn’t tell him. I just said, ‘I want to help you stop this development.’ ”

While Henley grew up in rural Texas “surrounded by woods, lakes, ponds,” he didn’t discover Thoreau until after he dropped out of college, half a semester before graduating, to care for his dying father in 1968.

“My father’s illness struck me deeply, the same way the death of Thoreau’s brother was a great upheaval for him. When I went home, I roamed the woods with my dog, reading Thoreau and Emerson. I was looking for a metaphysics, some ideology that would sustain me. . . . The transcendentalists helped me. I found strength and wisdom there that helped me get through that difficult time,” he said.

“Thoreau simply spoke to me, in a way that’s hard for me to describe. . . . He was seeking the answers to life’s biggest questions: Why are we here? What’s our purpose? How do we live deliberately?

“He was popular when I was coming of age, when the baby boomers were in a state of social upheaval. The environmental movement, civil rights, antiwar protests — Thoreau’s philosophy encompassed all these things. He was prescient in that way,” Henley said. “And here we are today with this man in the White House, and materialism is a major theme again, and shameless self-interest. Given our current political landscape, Thoreau is more timely than ever.”