On Reading Wendell Berry's "Life Is a Miracle"
Illustrated Wendell Berry Poetry Volume Is Published

Wendell Berry's But-Constructions

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.

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