Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Mazes for the environment?
Created By Yonatan Frimer yfrimer @ yahoo.com
Maze of Mazes
If our garden maze discussion a few weeks ago left you dazed, let me propose a riddle of more simple design: the labyrinth. Mazes, with their many turns, convolutions and dead-ends, are designed to excite and confuse. Labyrinths, having one path in to the goal and the same path out, are contemplative and reflective. While we sometimes use the words interchangeably and the two have common origins, labyrinths are laden with much more dusty history.
So much history, in fact, that no one is certain when people drew the first one. A rock carving of a labyrinth at Luzzanas, on the island of Sardinia, is thought to date from about 2,500 BC. Others in southern India, northern Italy, and Egypt are all over 2,000 years old. Cretan coins embossed with a labyrinth design might have carried the symbol around the world. The Pima tribes in Arizona have woven baskets depicting a labyrinth pattern for centuries. That so many diverse cultures created labyrinths over thousands of years only adds to the mystery.
And although we Americans like to think of ourselves as creators of the Space Age and beyond, we’re also being drawn back to the labyrinth. It’s estimated that there may be as many as 2,000 labyrinths in the United States today, most created in the last few years. There might even be one in your neighborhood: check out the comprehensive on-line list created by the The Labyrinth Society, which lists 111 in New York alone.
If you’re having trouble distinguishing a labyrinth from a maze, let me try to explain. Picture a spiral, but instead of the path circling inward toward the center, a labyrinth’s one path loops back and forth, yet still ends near the middle of what is overall a circular creation. While any size is possible, many of the ancient labyrinths had seven rings or circuits and are said to be “classical.” A later design, from Medieval times, has the single path traveling around four quadrants arranged in a cruciform pattern, and is sometimes called a “Christian” labyrinth. The oldest one of these is in the floor of Chartes Cathedral in France.
So what do labyrinths mean? Some believe they symbolize the process of being born – literally snaking along the birth canal at the start - and life’s subsequent journey. In Sweden, young people once performed virgin dances in labyrinths, where a boy had to run in, pick up a girl, and run out flawlessly in order to claim her. Christians have walked labyrinths on their knees as penance, used them to symbolize a journey to the Holy land, or seen them as a metaphor for getting to know God – sometimes one might feel close, other times far away. Others find that walking slowly through the encircling rings quiets the mind and leads to new perspectives.
While creating a maze requires walls or hedges, many of the most beautiful labyrinths are made by cutting paths in a lawn, or arranging rocks in a patch of gravel, making a garden of simple, yet deep, spirituality.
David Chinery is the horticultural educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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