What "but" buries
I’ve been thinking a lot about the word but recently. The weight it carries, and the depth of what it erases. “I’m sorry I lost my temper with you, but I’ve had a long day” is a very different sentence from “I’m sorry I lost my temper with you; I’ve had a long day.” The but deflects. It absolves the speaker of responsibility, instead turning it back on the person being spoken to. While “I’ve had a long day but that’s no excuse for losing my temper with you” gives an opening to reframe and repair.
I use but in my writing all the time. It’s partly just my style, which is shaped (probably wildly out of proportion) by the few years I spent as a Lincoln-Douglas debater in high school. LD debate requires the competitors to prepare for every angle of argument on a subject because you never know in any given tournament which position you’re going to be arguing. Not only does your side change throughout the day, but you might be competing against someone who’s come up with an argument you never heard of. I once debated a guy whose entire case was built around the philosophy of hedonism. I don’t remember the topic, but after winning that round I sought him out to tell him how hard he made me work for it. His approach was novel; it wasn’t in my files of but or and or yet arguments, much less in the bank of quotes from philsophers I’d built up.
In writing, I find, but helps me poke at ideas from as many angles as I can think of. It’s a turnabout, a wondering, an opportunity to essay in an essay. And it serves for so many other words, like instead or please. Like the Lord’s Prayer: And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.
In can also, though, cover up sloppy thinking or weak arguments. It can forgive sins and gloss over realities we are trying to ignore.
It’s a word that I’ve heard over and over in discourse about American history, used as a way to relieve the speaker of responsibility for considering the genocidal violence of how this country was founded. Most specifically—since this is the culture I come from and the world I live in, the American West and the pioneer/homesteader-colonizers who were ancestors to many of us, including me—it allows people the safety of claiming pride in their heritage while absolving them of the responsibility of asking how that heritage was obtained. “Yes, the way that my family ended up with this land was the result of genocide and theft, but we’ve been taking good care of it for three or four or five generations; we’re part of this land’s history, too, now.”
Statements like this hint at well-intentioned acknowledgement, yet the but is what hides the rest, the deeper understanding, the willingness to grapple with what that genocide and theft meant for the people on the receiving end of it versus those who received its benefits, much less the willingness to face the fact that the descendants of those who were massacred and stolen from are also still here having to live with that history without any escape through but.
It’s something that hit me harder than usual when I was elk hunting last fall in Montana’s Sweetgrass Hills. The rancher (whom I never met) owns something like 30,000 acres—all of it landlocking actual public land—and his written ranch history gives a brief couple of sentences about how the Sweetgrass Hills were (not are, even though the Blackfeet reservation is practically next door) sacred to the Blackfeet Nation. The rancher’s history could, and did, start with his family’s original possession of the land, the taking, the claiming of private ownership. Not, for example, with the 1870 Baker Massacre in which 177 Blackfeet people, including 50 children, were murdered, followed by decades of intentional starvation strategies like the killing of millions of bison by the U.S. government.
The word but makes it easy to pass on only the chosen narratives of those in power.
I don’t personally see how anyone can look that history in the face, really look at it, and still be willing to glide over how one’s family came to be in the possession of land that was taken from others, not that long ago and via unimaginable violence. The immediate violence of genocide like the Baker and Sand Creek Massacres, and the slower violence of treaty violations, forced removals, and outright lies. It was future president James Garfield, remember, who forged Chief Charlo’s signature on a removal agreement in 1872, which was then used to pressure and eventually force the Salish people to relocate from the Bitteroot Valley to the Flathead, where the land they were promised would be theirs in perpetuity was again stolen for railways, timber companies, and forced allotment sales to more white settlers.
The issue seems to be that people looking at this history don’t know how to deal with the feelings evoked by its reality. “I didn’t do it,” is the common response. Didn’t buy or sell enslaved people or steal people’s land. No, you didn’t. Neither did I. Neither did my homesteader ancestors, not directly. That does not mean, however, that we have in any way earned that but; we’re using it to try to pretend that that history doesn’t matter anymore. Things are the way they are and there’s not much we can do about it. You hear this all the time when the subject of “land back” is brought up. Even when some are sympathetic, the feeling is that the land is already redistributed in a different form and to different people. It’s already owned, even public land. There’s no going back.
Henry George had an immense amount to say about the tension of this injustice in his 1879 book Progress & Poverty, calling ownership by wealthy landowners (land hoarders, really), especially among the English aristocracy, “theft from the future.”
“This robbery is not like the robbery of a horse or a sum of money, that ceases with the act. It is a fresh and continuous robbery, that goes on every day and every hour. It is not from the produce of the past that rent is drawn; it is from the produce of the present. . . . Why should we hesitate about making short work of such a system?”
The phrase “private property is bedrock” comes up a great deal in conversations I listen to about public lands, conservation, and American history. But (BUT!) if I let the realities of American history lead me further into the past than the founding myths of the country and back across the Atlantic Ocean, what I find is that this “bedrock,” too, was built out of injustices and theft of land, of the enclosed commons that provide humans with life. One of the reasons that the Scots-Irish (a people who are always trotted out as some kind of epitome of American ideals, particularly when it comes to land ownership; I am one of their descendants, along with millions of others) were so fiercely defensive about land ownership is that those same Scots-Irish spent centuries being repressed and refused land-based self-sufficiency, much less ownership, by the English after their land was stolen and their commons-based systems of management shattered.
“The ‘sacredness of property,’” wrote George,
“has been preached so constantly and effectively, especially by those ‘conservators of ancient barbarism,’ as Voltaire styled the lawyers, that most people look upon the private ownership of land as the very foundation of civilization, and if the resumption of land as common property is suggested, think of it at first blush as a chimerical vagary, which never has and never can be realized, or as a proposition to overturn society from its base and bring about a reversion to barbarism.
“If it were true that land had always been treated as private property, that would not prove the justice or necessity of continuing so to treat it, any more than the universal existence of slavery, which might once have been safely affirmed, would prove the justice or necessity of making property of human flesh and blood. . . .
“But while, were it true, that land had always and everywhere been treated as private property would not prove that it should always be so treated, this is not true. On the contrary, the common right to land has everywhere been primarily recognized, and private ownership has nowhere grown up save as the result of usurpation. The primary and persistent perceptions of mankind are that all have an equal right to land, and the opinion that private property in land is necessary to society is but an offspring of ignorance that cannot look beyond its immediate surroundings—an idea of comparatively modern growth, as artificial and as baseless as that of the right divine of kings.”
Private property is not a bedrock; it’s quicksand. And it’s fiction. It leads too many of us to turn our minds away from the injustices of history. It’s a comfortable narrative that tricks us into thinking that the current state of things is not only right but inevitable.
This is not to pretend that those of us who are colonizer-descended don’t have a relationship with the land. I don’t personally own the land that was given to my homesteader ancestors—a second cousin does, and his son will inherit—nor the land that forms the nearby ranch my mother grew up on. I still feel a connection to both of those spreads in eastern Montana, a love, a kinship. And it’s here where I stumble into opposition to but: I want that feeling of kinship to lead all of us who feel it into even the smallest comprehension of how it compares with the kinship of people who lived with that land for tens of thousands of years and who within a century or so were forced off of it so it could be given to people like my ancestors.
(This is aside from the other side of the story, which has to do with the Homestead Act being a land-speculation pyramid scheme that most benefited railway and timber interests that could game the system.)
Too often, that sense of kinship stops at the borders of one’s own personal history. The acknowledgment ends at the fact: “. . . but my family has been good stewards of this land for five generations,” the but providing cover, erasure, to avoid facing what that reality has meant for others.
With even the very few books I’ve read laying this history open, like Nick Estes’s Our History Is the Future and Blake Watson’s Buying America from the Indians and Mark Charles’s Unsettling Truths, the number of massacres, deceptions, and treaty violations described lead to overwhelming emotional upheaval. I keep thinking about it as if one’s children were taken away. As I have children, and pay more attention to the news than I want to, this is fear I feel in my gut all the time. It’s chilling and visceral and it both has happened—residential schools being just one example, and I think it’s important to remember that, in many of those cases, Indigenous children were taken away to abusive boarding schools in order to force some tribal nations to open their reservations up to white settlement—and is happening. One need only glance at the news out of Ukraine to see history repeating itself. It wouldn’t matter if someone came back in 50 years, or 150, and said, “But we took really good care of them.” That but would not, does not, matter. It wouldn’t for the theft of children and it doesn’t for land.
This history existed, and it seems to be an enormous task for settler-descended Americans to learn about it without feeling like acknowledgment harms them (us) personally in some way. Even the most well-intentioned leap too quickly to the but to avoid looking more deeply into how we got here. Too many of us seem to lack even a modicum of courage, much less a willingess to let the people who have been most harmed lead the conversation and set expectations for future relationships. Fear—of what I’m not sure, but my guess is that it has to do with fear of losing what you have—leads us to the but and away from the harder conversations.
I have a photo above my desk of my homesteader ancestors—them on one side and my Russian grandparents on the other. I carry pride in both of those family branches. Understanding how that tall, clear-eyed Danish-German brood ended up with thousands of acres in eastern Montana doesn’t threaten them (they’re dead), and it certainly doesn’t threaten me or my children.
And if someone like Ninian Stuart, owner and laird—now steward of a land trust, instead, by his own choice—of a Scottish estate used for centuries as a royal summer escape, can question the roots of his own ownership, and seek to change it, so can we all. “How can you own a hill?” Stuart mused in an interview with Scotland Outdoors. “Actually, I belong to that hill, really, far more than that hill, or this forest, could ever belong to a person. We belong to this.”
“Land owning has come with power and privilege, and from money, past or present. In terms of Falkland Estate, if we look up there, there is the Temple of Decision, which was built in 1850 by Margaret Onesipherus Bruce, who built this house. Their money came from her uncle from the East India Company. . . . In terms of my family, the Second Marquess of Bute mortgaged all of his estates and created Cardiff Docks. And Cardiff Docks became the biggest coal exporting port in the world. . . . Onesipherus Tyndall came from a slaveowning family, a slave-trading family, in Bristol. When you go back, there are these past truamas and challenges which is probably associated with anywhere. There is something around acknowledging that. . . . If we’re going to become a fair society and to tap into the skills that people have, then that needs to change. . . .
“There’s something of moving from the family tree to a more resilient forest of community.”
“The biggest challenge,” he said, “is the revolution of ownership,” and that’s without even having mentioned the injustices inflicted on Scottish people themselves, for centuries up to and beyond the Highland Clearances that landed so many in North America.
Because that’s another thing about but: By using it to shut out the past, we also get to ignore the realities that drove people out of Europe in the first place. We risk repeating the history that absolutist land ownership and land-hoarding led life there to be so impossible for so many. Beyond risk—we’re already in the midst of its beginnings.
Henry George didn’t write Progress & Poverty in response to modern truth and reconciliation commissions or to address how we teach history in U.S. schools. He wrote it at a time when the Irish Potato Famine was very recent history, within a hundred years of the American Revolution and Adam Smith’s treatise on free markets, and when voting rights in Britain still had requirements of property ownership (as well as still being limited to men). He wrote it at a time when he could see the effects of land ownership and its relationship to power, how it devalued labor and forced vast numbers of ordinary people into subservience. How absolutely and absurdly unjust it was, and is, to take the very means of life and lock it up in the ownership of a few.
Instead of using but to erase history or deflect responsibility, we could use it as an opening, or a different kind of ownership—to say yes, this history is part of me and how I got there, too. To welcome the hard conversations and even the different values they might force us to consider. I don’t know how to solve the problems the saturate our lives; all I know is that we can’t get anywhere by pretending they have no foundation.
Beautifully written, and the photos are breathtaking. I'm going to watch how I use "but" going forward.
"But" kind of has superpowers because it can serve so many different functions and agendas, some good and some evil. Including the banal evil of the escape agendas you detail here. *But* I've always liked how it can serve that both/and function without being blandly both/and/anything; it challenges, lets you push back a little. To me it's always felt more like a protest or assertion of agency ("that's not fair!"). Or a search for truth ("don't leave this out!"). Or a recognition of the essential messiness of things, where every rule is stuck with its little exceptions and caveats. Funny how it can also be used to bury and gloss over. Both/and becomes but/not.
But. Sometimes it just gives you a space to pause and let the word hang in the air, while you think about what might have been left out, which you can't quite put words to yet,
I don't mean to get too hung up on the language piece, since your essay here is about ethics and responsibility and buried history, not aesthetics. But it occurs to me that "but" often does the most damage in these contexts, when it comes in the *middle* of a sentence. You can't say "Canada has all these hidden burial sites next to the schools in the same breath as "but the people here are really nice," and genuinely give both your full undivided attention. You have to be able to pause to be able to appreciate the contradiction.