I’ve always admired labyrinths and mazes. They connect us to the past, the present and the future. After seven years of thinking about it, we finally have a labyrinth in the Gayla Mize Garden. It’s a classic seven course design with a wonderful East Texas look.
The labyrinth is surrounded by a circle of ‘Slender Silhouette’ sweetgum trees. It’s a unique columnar tree – fastigiate is the term – and the original tree was discovered on the edge of a lake in Tennessee by legendary plantsman, Don Shadow. It was reported to be 60′ tall and only 8′ wide. Well, Don liberated some cuttings and grafted the clone. He returned later to get some more wood and was caught by the landowner with a gun. It’s Tennesee, you know. He was persuaded to leave quietly and returned later to find that the tree was cut down. However, it really didn’t matter because the original grafts took and the tree was saved for posterity. Please don’t disparage the fact that it’s a sweetgum, often hated and reviled for the round sweetgum balls that scatter across lawns and gardens in the South. Stepping on one barefoot can make you an enemy of the tree. So when folks ask, does it have balls, I always say, “Yes, it has sweetgum balls, but they don’t fall far from the tree.”
Even though we’ve talked about a labyrinth for many years, it wasn’t until Eagle Scout Luke Stanley approached me about a project that this came together. Most Eagle Scout projects involve building picnic tables and boardwalks. When I mentioned this opportunity, Luke jumped at the chance. While funding was an issue, it finally all came together. The project received a boost near the end with Tim Howell’s donation of a Klingstone Paths treatment, a chemical that bonds all the pea gravel into a concrete hard surface, one that is permeable to rain. It breathes.
So, what is a labyrinth? The term labyrinth is generally synonymous with a maze. However, in modern times it’s accepted that a labyrinth is not a maze and a maze is not a labyrinth. Contemporary scholars and enthusiasts observe a distinction between the two. In this specialized usage, a maze refers to a complex branching multicursal design with choices of path and direction, while a unicursal labyrinth enjoys only a single path to the center. You can get lost in a maze. On the other hand, a labyrinth is easy to navigate. It requires no complex thinking to stroll one’s way to the center. It’s impossible to get lost. Follow the path.
Unicursal labyrinths appeared early in man’s history as designs on pottery, baskets, body art and in drawings on walls of caves, churches, businesses and homes. The Romans used ornate unicursal designs on walls and floors in tile or mosaic. Many labyrinths set in floors or on the ground are large enough that the path can be walked. Unicursal patterns have been used historically both in group ritual, for private meditation and in recent times have found therapeutic value in hospitals and hospices.
Our single-path classical seven-course design fits the association of the Labyrinth on coins as early as 430 BC. Even though literal descriptions made it clear that the Minotaur was trapped in a complex branching maze, from Roman times till now labyrinths were almost always unicursal. Branching mazes were later reintroduced when garden mazes became popular during the Renaissance.
Now I realize that the average East Texan may not embrace the psychic and cosmic benefits of a labyrinth. We like chicken fried steak, Bar-B-Q, beer in a can and hunting wild hogs. A labyrinth just doesn’t come to mind. Some citizens are truly suspicious of labyrinths as strange and alien inspired. However, it’s just not true. No matter your persuasion, we encourage you to saunter to the middle and then saunter out. To get the full benefit, you should approach the entrance and concentrate on your breathing for a minute or so. Empty your mind. Relax. Then start the trek. Go for a very slow pace. For our labyrinth, it takes about five minutes to make your way to the center rock. Sit a spell, contemplate your well being and then take the stroll out. Science proves that your blood pressure will drop, your mood will improve, and all will seem right with the world. In these trying times, a labyrinth might just be the medicine we need.