A Walk in the Woods

These days the question of what it means to be a “true” American resists rational analysis. Whatever one can say about Americans that is true, the opposite is equally true. We are the most godless and most religious, the most puritanical and most libertine, the most charitable and most heartless of societies. We espouse the maxim “that government is best which governs least,” yet look to government to address our every problem. Our environmental conscientiousness is outmatched only by our environmental recklessness. We are outlaws obsessed by the rule of law, individualists devoted to communitarian values, a nation of fat people with anorexic standards of beauty. The only things we love more than nature’s wilderness are our cars, malls, and digital technology. The paradoxes of the American psyche go back at least as far as our Declaration of Independence, in which slave owners proclaimed that all men are endowed by their creator with an unalienable right to liberty.
Thoreau declared that he went to the Walden woods “to front only the essential facts of life,” for he did not want, when it came time for him to die, to “discover that I had not lived.” In her poignant and eloquent book, When I Came to Die, Audrey Raden shows how, for Thoreau, death and dying were among the most essential facts of life, and that to live life to the fullest meant to live it in full awareness of its mortality.

More from the NY Review of Books here