Ah, you useful little “but.” You have been discussed at length in craft books, lectures, advisor phone calls, and, of course, critical essays. So much is embodied in your unassuming three letters. You can almost stand alone (and in French you often do: “Oui, mais…” [insert pursed-lip ‘pfffssst’ here]). You are king among conjunctions. You are worthy of an ode:
Oh, but, inherent contradiction,
You give my work such pleasing friction….
I won’t go on.
Recently, I looked at how but-constructions operate not just poetically or grammatically, but functionally, through the course of entire essays. I examined two works: Wendell Berry’s “An Entrance to the Woods,” which is about a two-day hiking trip into Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, and Annie Dillard’s “Seeing,” which is about different ways of understanding the physical world. (You can get your hands on both pretty easily – they’re in Lopate’s “Art of the Personal Essay.”) Today I’ll cover Wendell Berry; check back in a few days for Annie Dillard.
In “Entrance to the Woods,” Wendell Berry uses but-constructions to bring himself and his own thought patterns into the narrative. Out of necessity, he spends a great deal of time describing the landscape through which he hikes, but that landscape triggers his own musings on the interface between civilization and wildness. The essay, therefore, moves back and forth between rote descriptions of nature, such as, in the 2nd paragraph:
It is nearly five o’clock when I start walking. The afternoon is brilliant and warm, absolutely still, not enough air stirring to move a leaf. There is only the steady somnolent trilling of insects, and now and again in the woods below me the cry of a pileated woodpecker. Those, and my footsteps on the path, are the only sounds.
And more inward-looking sections that are essentially philosophical, such as, midway through the 2nd section:
Wilderness is the element in which we live encased in civilization, as a mollusk lives in his shell in the sea. It is a wilderness that is beautiful, dangerous, abundant, oblivious of us, mysterious, never to be conquered or controlled or second-guessed, or known more than a little. It is a wilderness that for most of us most of the time is kept out of sight, camouflaged, by the edifices and the busyness and the bothers of human society.
Thirteen times, however, Berry explicitly uses the word ‘but’ in very close conjunction with the personal pronoun. These could be considered “But-I” constructions. Some examples:
That sense of the past is probably one reason for the melancholy that I feel. But I know that there are other reasons.
And now, here at my camping place, I have stopped altogether. But my mind is still keyed to seventy miles an hour.
Perhaps the most difficult labor for my species is to accept its limits, its weakness and ignorance. But here I am.
And so I have come here to enact – not because I want to but because, once here, I cannot help it – the loneliness and the humbleness of my kind.
Notably, most of these thirteen instances even have sentences that begin with ‘but’. (There are two other instances that fall into this same “but-I” category but use ‘though’ as their contrast word.)
Berry uses “But-I” constructions to introduce a questioning, a lack of assurance, into the essay as a whole. It seems Berry is puzzling out the answer as he writes. Though he may be on sure footing with the calls of the woodpecker, he is communicating that he is less sure about the broader questions of wilderness in the context of human culture. In the above examples, note the use of ‘probably’ and ‘perhaps’ and ‘I cannot help it.’ These words note a less clear-cut view of reality and they appear in nearly every “But-I” circumstance. The use of “But-I,” therefore, especially when ‘but’ originates a sentence, signals an entry into Berry’s mind’s eye, where the answers are less sure.
In one interesting dual contradiction, Berry uses the “But-I” (in the 8th paragraph) to suggest confidence in his knowledge: But here it has a quality that I recognize as peculiar to the narrow hollows of the Red River Gorge. Several pages later, however, he introduces the construction again, to essentially contradict that confidence: But I am in this hollow for the first time in my life. I see nothing that I recognize. He even repeats the word ‘hollow’ in both passages. The second example introduces a philosophical section about the transience of his presence and doubt about the importance of his very existence: the lack of assurance, again.
There are, however, four instances where the ‘but’ is not accompanied by the first person. These happen in two pairs – one pair near the beginning of the piece, and the other about two-thirds of the way through. Both pairs deal with nature, but in different ways. Here is the first:
I pass a ledge overhanging a sheer drop of rock, where in a wetter time there would be a waterfall. The ledge is dry and mute now, but on the face of the rock below are the characteristic mosses, ferns, liverwort, meadow rue.
Five following sentences further describe the ravine into which Berry is hiking, concluding the paragraph. Then:
Finally from the crease of the ravine I am following there begins to come the trickling and splashing of water. There is a great restfulness in the sounds these small streams make; they are going down as fast as they can, but their sounds seem leisurely and idle, as if produced like gemstones with the greatest patience and care.
In contrast to the “But-I” constructions described earlier, these are far simpler. They include point and counterpoint within the same sentence. They further describe the natural elements at hand by establishing the contrasts inherent in them. What seems to be one thing is in fact another.
But there is another message to this pair (to use a but-construction of my own). These two passages signal the two inherent contrasts that Berry discusses throughout the entire essay. They introduce the two key themes of the piece. The first (about the ravine) references the passage of time. The ledge is dry, BUT was once wet. Berry deals with this theme in addressing the changing landscape. He begins four paragraphs later by saying the landscape he is in is “haunted” by the ghosts of “ancient tribesmen,” “white hunters,” and “seekers of quick wealth in timber.” Later, while on the high ridge the next day, Berry sees an inscription on the rock from 1903 and begins to imagine the history of the view he sees. He addresses the change (over time) in wilderness from being dominant to subservient in relation to human culture.
The second ‘but’ in the first pair (about the stream) references the pace of life. The streams move quickly, BUT they sound leisurely. Berry regularly brings up the contrast between the expressway and the woods, for the first time just six paragraphs later. Through the essay, Berry gradually transitions from the high-speed world of his office and the highway to the slower world of the wilderness, and he thinks at length about that transition.
The second pair of nature-centered but-constructions bring the discussion of the passage of time, the pace of the world, and the interaction between humans and wilderness together, thereby forming the crux of the essay (even though there are still pages to go). The text reads:
On a day like this, at the end of September, there would have been only the sounds of a few faint crickets, a woodpecker now and then, now and then the wind. But today, two-thirds of a century later, the continent is covered by an ocean of engine noise, in which silences occur only sporadically and at wide intervals.
From where I am sitting in the midst of this island of wilderness, it is as though I am listening to the machine of human history – a huge flywheel building speed until finally the force of its whirling will break it in pieces, and the world with it. That is not an attractive thought, and yet I find it impossible to escape, for it has seemed to me for years now that the doings of men no longer occur within nature, but that the natural places which the human economy has so far spared now survive almost accidentally within the doings of men.
There are a few things of note here. Though the first person appears in this passage, it does not appear in direct relation to the ‘buts.’ The contradiction refers to culture and nature, not Berry’s mind’s eye. There are specific mentions of time (“the end of September” and “two-thirds of a century later”) and speed. These, of course, refer back to the initial pair of nature-centered but-constructions.
Following this passage, Berry concludes a long paragraph with what can justifiably be called a rant. This is the height of the essay’s anti-civilization, pro-wilderness rhetoric, even concluding with the unusual (for this piece) mention of specific human evils: “the poison spray, the hugging fire of napalm, the cloud of Hiroshima.” The ‘buts’ that introduce this section are used to describe today’s wilderness by contrasting their former glory with their current demise. Long ago there would have been only crickets, BUT now there is engine noise. Once, man was enveloped by nature, BUT today it is, sadly, the other way around.
Interestingly, just as this rant is about to spiral out of control (at Hiroshima), Berry reins it in by using another but-construction – even though he employs a ‘though/still’ combination here instead of ‘but.’ After Hiroshima there is a section break, then Berry returns to the “But-I” technique to, as he has done throughout the essay, cast doubt on his own train of thought. That passage reads:
Though from the high vantage point of this stony ridge I see little hope that I will ever live a day as an optimist, still I am not desperate. In fact, with the sun warming me now, and with the whole day before me to wander in this beautiful country, I am happy.
Where the preceding paragraph was nearly devoid of the first person, instead delivering a treatise on the ills of civilization, the introduction to the next section, in which Berry returns to the pure happiness of being in the woods, presents the ‘I’ several times in rapid succession. And, to mesh with the dismal viewpoint right before, the contrast moves from pessimism to optimism, low to high. I am a pessimist, BUT I am still happy. From this point to the end of the essay, the mind’s eye grows silent, perhaps exhausted, perhaps indicating the author’s final transition to the wilderness. There is only one “But-I” construction left, and it deals with Berry being physically tired at the end of the hike.
In essence, then, the two pairs of nature centered but-constructions open and close the philosophical section (the opening two-thirds) of the essay. Within this section are numerous “But-I” constructions that explore both sides of the nature/civilization discussion. After the 2nd pair of nature ‘buts’ is a long denouement during which Berry simply revels in being in the wilderness. He lets his mind rest, seeing only nature as it is. He puts the ‘buts’ away.
—By Adam Arvidson