'Walden' Embraces Thoreau's Message

The short film 'Walden' documentary is a brief film that covers quite a bit of ground. (Photo: screenshot via "Walden" documentary/Walden Woods Project)

What is it about Walden Pond that has so captured the American imagination? While I have always admired Henry David Thoreau as a writer, I've never quite understood the fascination with the place where he did his writing — a seemingly ordinary pond in Massachusetts. I finally learned the answer to my question after watching the new documentary, "Walden," narrated by Robert Redford, directed by Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers and produced by Ken Burns. (You can watch the 18-minute doc for free on walden.org.)

"Thoreau made himself an everyman," explains Don Henley, musician and founder of the Walden Woods Project. "And he made Walden Pond his everywhere. By simply observing it and writing about it, he took an ordinary pond, and made it iconic. He made it the universal symbol," Henley says in the documentary.

In pithier form, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, who also speaks in the documentary, echoes that thought: "In its ordinariness is its significance."

That made a lot of sense to me, and helped me understand Walden Pond's appeal as a tourist destination and spiritual home for some. It's this location's very simplicity that makes it special — a natural place that's not too hard to get to or unusual to traverse. It's not dramatic or even particularly unique. It's like many spaces in America where regular people find respite in the natural world.

By allowing ourselves to see Walden's beauty through Thoreau's eyes, the beauty in our own natural surroundings are easier to see and appreciate.

A trailer to the short film is here.

The importance of Thoreau's work

Musician Don Henley is chairman of the board of the Walden Woods Project.
Musician Don Henley is chairman of the board of the Walden Woods Project. (Photo: Screenshot from "Walden"/Walden Woods Project)

At just 18 minutes, the full documentary is a almost a meditation, with calming, beautiful imagery of Walden Pond and its surrounds intercut with images and commentary from the many historians and environmentalists who speak about their relationship with Thoreau's work or Walden Pond itself. In true Ken Burns style, it moves slowly, allowing time for the thoughtful statements from the likes of Terry Tempest Williams, Doris Kearns Goodwin and others.

The documentary is an elegant synopsis of Thoreau's life and connection to a pond near Concord, Massachusetts, where he spent two years, two months and two days living in a cabin and writing his first book, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers." His now-internationally known book about his time on the pond, "Walden," came later.

The film comes on the 200th anniversary of Thoreau's birth, and will be shown at the Walden Pond Visitor Center following its debut this month.

“I’ve long been interested in Thoreau,” said Burns in a release. “But like others, I’m increasingly drawn not just to the eloquence of his writings but also to the importance of them as we urgently look to create greater awareness and appreciation of nature and the environment. His legacy, so beautifully preserved by the Walden Woods Project, is a call to action for all of us. We must rethink how we as a nation treat our land and natural resources. The awe and wonder that Thoreau found at Walden, and along his many walks, must infuse how we look at and experience nature. It is critical to our ability to heal the planet.”