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The Spirit of Thoreau Is Recalled During Dedication of Institute in Massachusetts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the spot where Henry David Thoreau once gathered strawberries, President Clinton on Friday invoked the spirit of the 19th century naturalist who helped inspire the environmental movement of the late 20th century.

With overtones of Woodstock and presidential references to the soulful benefits of walking in the woods, the dedication of the new Thoreau Institute here was at once dignified and a happening worthy of graying baby boomers, including the 51-year-old Clinton.

The president waxed philosophical by offering his favorite quote from Thoreau. “Let us settle ourselves and work,” he intoned, “and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of prejudice and delusion until we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place which we can call reality.”

Walden Pond, a popular swimming hole and recreation site, was not visible from the Tudor mansion that houses the new institute. For years the pond was part campsite, part dump site--a grungy, overused area littered with beverage bottles and other detritus. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, in fact, recalled her disappointment when, as a student at nearby Wellesley College in the 1960s, she made her “pilgrimage” to the pond and found it so despoiled.

Then in 1990, former Eagles drummer Don Henley showed up to launch his Walden Woods Project to preserve the woods and waterfront, where, in 1845, the young Thoreau spent several years living in a crude lean-to. His experiment, as Thoreau called it, in “deep and deliberate living” became the basis for his book “Walden,” a tract that espouses the possibility of finding spirituality in nature.

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In turn, that volume was embraced by baby boomers, a generation of post-war Americans who decried materialism while often going on to pursue it. Walden is the name of Garry Trudeau’s cartoon commune for aging hippies, and Friday’s celebration seemed at times like a scene from his popular Doonesbury strip.

Comedian Ed Begley Jr., for example, amused many Bostonians in tweeds and broad-brimmed fishing hats by arriving in his natural-gas powered car. Chamber music, not “Margaritaville,” wafted through the air while Jimmy Buffett, another avid supporter of the Walden Woods project, mixed with environmentalists at the estate the Thoreau Institute purchased from descendants of President John Quincy Adams. When it came time for more patriotic selections, it was Tony Bennett, in a sapphire blue necktie, who crooned “America the Beautiful.”

The crowd was so heavy with graying entertainers that at one point Begley took to the microphone to declare that “I feel like the emcee at Woodstock.” Begley then promised “some Eagles tunes--on the oboe.”

If such frivolity seemed far from the philosophy of Thoreau, there was Henley to provide his own reality check. As a college student in the 1960s, Henley discovered Thoreau. “Walden” was among the works that sustained the musician while he tended to his ailing father soon thereafter.

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Henley borrowed a line from Thoreau himself to describe just how important his writing became to him. “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from reading a book.”

When construction of an office park threatened to complete the ruin of Thoreau’s wooded sanctuary, Henley threw himself into the effort of preserving it. Through concerts, a collection of celebrity essays and benefit dinners featuring stars like Jerry Seinfeld, Henley spent eight years raising $18 million to acquire 96 acres around the pond. The institute he established will serve as a center for research and education on Thoreau, the environment and the humanities.

In the view of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Henley’s determination earned him the title of “the big fish in Walden Pond.” Kerry praised Thoreau’s commitment to civil disobedience as the motivation for his own night in a jail following a Vietnam War protest.

With the president nodding enthusiastically, it seemed that each speaker had a personal memory of just how much Thoreau, or Walden Pond, had been an influence. As a boy, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, his mother would pile “as many of us as she could fit” into the family station wagon and haul them out to Walden Pond.

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“We came to swim and stayed to learn,” said Kennedy, adding: “I think that the distant drummer that Thoreau was referring to was Don Henley.”

Clinton’s musings on 19th century philosophy followed his exhortation earlier in the day to seize the “revolutionary democratizing potential” of technology in the 21st century. Addressing the graduating class at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology in Cambridge, Clinton--the first sitting president to speak at MIT--pledged to spend $100 million to train technical educators. Declaring that “all students should feel as comfortable with a keyboard as a chalkboard,” he also urged states to make technological literacy a requirement for graduation from middle school.

The Clintons’ visit to Massachusetts also included a stopover at the Brighton home of retiring Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III to observe the 30th anniversary of the death of his father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. At a dining room table surrounded by 40 members of the Kennedy clan, including the late senator’s wife, Ethel, Clinton taped his Saturday radio address lauding Kennedy’s legacy.

“In a time of division, more than any American, he bridged . . . gaps,” Clinton said. “We still hear his voice appealing to the best qualities of the American spirit. We still strive to answer his insistent challenge to do good and to do better.”


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