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A Third Possibility

These days I am always curious about "third ways". Its obvious that our world is highly polarized and uses a lot of black/white, goodguys/badguys, us/them, thinking.

Usually both ways have just as many problems. Which is why third ways are so interesting to me. They're also more difficult to maintain if you're dedicated to resisting the urge to cynically reject everything and go off to be a hermit.

I'm also fascinated by the elements. I feel like they can be used to metaphorically understand anything. I've always like elemental images.

Anyways, here's the poem...

A Third Possibility by Wendell Berry

I fired the brush pile by the creek

and leaping gargoyles of flame

fled over it, fed on it, roaring,

and made one flame that stood

tall in its own wind, snapping off

points of itself that raved and vanished.

The creek kept coming down, filling

above the rocks, folding

over them, its blank face dividing

in gargles and going on, mum

under the ice, for the day was cold,

the wind stinging as the flame stung.

Unable to live either life, I stood

between the two and liked them both.


I'm just going to riff on this for a minute because it stirs up a lot of thoughts (and its my blog so I get to do what I want).

The wordplay is immediately noticeable to me. As is the fact that he is dealing with two elements that are generally understood to be opposites (whether they are or not is another question).

We all generally accept that water and fire are opposites but his language backs that up over and over again. The fire is all loud energy leaping and fleeing and feeding and roaring and snapping and raving.

The water portion is more subdued or even passive--just "coming down". It has a "blank face", and it's "mum".

One begins as many ("gargoyles of flame") that combine into a single entity as it rises, while the other begins as a single entity ("the creek") that divides into many as it descends.

Also, the first reduces itself to an eventual nothing by "snapping off points of itself that...vanish[]." While the other multiplies itself and layers itself over itself (the ice). It ends as a multiplicity of selfs all layered on top and hiding themselves. Both go out of sight at the end, and leave nothing but a sting. One a cold sting and one a hot sting, but both painful.

In the final stanza Berry pivots and identifies both entities as lives that he is "unable to live".

You can finish the metaphor by connecting the two extremes to any two extremes you know. The reducers and the multipliers. The energetic ones who stand tall and unify, or the slithering dividers who hide. The violent ravers or the ones who calmly and quietly cover and hold, and fill the gaps... take it wherever you want and according to your own values. But notice that both elements have a sting--none of the qualities are "good" or "bad" they're just extremes.

What I like about Berry's last stanza is that even though he has just acknowledged the sting in both entities, he still "likes them both". And I think its appropriate that his "third possibility" is hardly articulated--just two lines. He just stands between and likes both. Stillness. Love. I'd like to be a little better at taking that way. Sometimes it's hard to see that option when fire and water are moving all around you though.

Oh and by the way... growth (in the garden) requires both water and fire (sun/warmth). Either one by itself will kill all growth. One of the gardener's main jobs is to make sure there is just enough of each one but not too much of either.

I like this poem. I hope you do too.

To standing between!


The painting below is by van Gogh and it is called simply "Peasant Burning Weeds". It doesn't quite match the image this poem gives, but.... oh well. Its still a good painting. Keep looking at it.

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