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  • Stopping By
  • Robert Bringhurst (bio)


Whose woods these are I do not know. I bought them from a man who said he owned them, but I only have to be here long enough to take a breath and then it’s clear he did not own them, nor do I.     What is it possible to own? The woman who says to me in the darkness, I’m your woman, you’re my man, is speaking, I’m sure, of belonging rather than owning. There is only so much owning you can do, I guess, before it turns against you. Yet we marry one another every day, that woman and I. It’s what we do; it’s who we are. You know, it’s taken us our lives to get this clear. You know, it’s what our lives were for.

      Suppose we married forests, rivers, mountains, valleys, grasslands, hills. Suppose we married rocks and creeks and trees. Suppose we married them over and over, every day. Suppose we also did this knowing they will change, and so will we, and we will die, and so will they. Suppose we married the world itself in spite of the fact, or because of the fact, that whatever is real is always barely coming into view or going away. [End Page 144]

You might remember what it says in Snyder’s poem. The land belongsto itself, it says. No self in self;no self in things. How else could anywhere ever be home?       And is that what the land understands that we don’t? No self in self or in anything else? Which is to say, no self at all? Suppose the land just understands that it belongs. That’s all. It just belongs. Could it belong to us? I do not think it does or ever has. Could we belong to it? I do not think the land will ever buy us, and I do not think we ought to sell ourselves or ought to be for sale. But if we gave ourselves away, do you suppose the land would take us? Another way to put that might just be, Do we belong? I want, of course, to say we do. Except I know, the way things are, it isn’t true. The way we are, we don’t belong. We’re passing by or passing through. That’s how things are this afternoon, here in the woods I do not own, here in the world I understood a good deal better before I was born than I do now. Another way to put that might just be, we never learn.


      That poem I lifted a few words from—Snyder’s poem— is called What Happened Here Before. It takes its name from where we are. Wherever we let the land belong is called What Happened Here Before, because what happened here before is that the land learned how to be what it became. That is to say, [End Page 145] it learned how to learn, day after day, to belong where it is. That is the story of each place that is a place and every thing that is a thing. It is the only way a being can become what being is. It is the story of the riverbeds, the gravels, bedrocks, mosses, Douglas-firs, the northern toads and black-tailed deer.

What-is consists of what is happening right now and what has happened here before. It wasn’t always how it is. It wasn’t always even here. No self in self; no self in things; no self in others either. Just the shape of what has happened here before, which keeps on shifting, changing, singing. Not forever. For a time you cannot measure in the way you measure time. That is the thing that singing does. It carries whatever there is around and over the edge of time. That might just be how what has happened here before can keep on being. And it has, it does, it is.

      The land, as you see, is a tissue of scars—collisions and slippages, floods and eruptions, fires and slides— and the dying, the dead...