Scaling Labyrinths

The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it which differentiates it from an actual maze which may have multiple paths intricately linked.

Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in diverse regions across the globe. They continue playing a role in modern times.

My love affair with labyrinths began at childhood. The mystery books I devoured often featured a labyrinth or maze to offer riddles and clues in ways I now realize might have been a tad bit romanticized. Over the years, while mazes remain fun and exciting in a ‘hide-and-seek’ meets treasure-hunting sort of way, labyrinths have taken on a more meaningful, sacred role. To me, mazes get you to focus exclusively on the task of finding ones way to the center and then making the return trip to get out, thereby providing a complete distraction which can be refreshing and exhilarating. Getting lost and/or confused is all part of the experience.

In traversing a labyrinth, one can ostensibly see its entire design. The center is visible at all times. Where one is trying to get to is apparent. How to do so is not as clear. It’s only by mindful walking, taking in all the turns and switchbacks, that an individual makes it to the center – itself a site for rest and reflection. Labyrinths are not meant to be challenging. Instead they gently guide the walker to move through at an easy pace whilst permitting him/her to observe, think and center the mind. In doing so, by the time one reaches the labyrinth’s center, the mind has shed itself of all other distractions and arrives prepared for deeper meditation.
In perfect silence, a well laid labyrinth teaches life lessons to all who walk it. Like the best of therapists it has us work out all our issues by ourselves.

A labyrinth sits there as a ready escape from chaos, a world gone mad, to find once again one’s true north. Typically set outdoors, it partners beautifully with nature to calm the mind and heart by purposefully removing the walker from the normal, linear understanding of time and direction. Slowly, the outside world recedes and one becomes aware of the world within ourselves. How we are feeling, what we hope for, the conflicting thoughts, the elusive solutions rise up and get understood. This active meditation leads to the deep meditation awaiting at the center. Sitting in quiet, breathing deeply and surrendering all diversionary thoughts gives one the gift of emerging clear headed and relaxed. Ready to face with clarity and acceptance that complex, noisy world we live in.

I’ve always longed to design a labyrinth. A good labyrinth has an ideal size. Too small and it fails to decompress the mind because the center is reached too quickly. Too big and it can get tedious. The amount of walking and turning must be just right. Even the width of the path must be correct – not too narrow and constricting or too wide and spacious. Creating an ideal labyrinth is not as easy as it might seem. Scale is key.
Making paths of grass or mulch bordered by stones, low growing plants or any other natural material keeps the cost quite low. The simpler the better. Yet, an ideal design and layout is a call for creativity.

The only part of my garden that could support a proper labyrinth would be where the meadow lies. However, this area is sloped and uneven and must not be leveled for reasons of water drainage and run-off. I’m thus resigned to not having this feature of my own.

Last Sunday, I was taken to an absolutely lovely labyrinth at the Priory in Weston, Vermont. Sited on an open, flat space laid with paths of grass outlined by single lines of brick set in the ground, it is beautifully simple. The size is perfect and the design takes you just long enough to get to the inviting seats in the center. Beyond the labyrinth is a vast, open meadow full of native grasses and wild flowers. Birds, butterflies, bees and other critters abound. Feeling vulnerable and humble, I walked with the sounds of nature keeping me company. The sun was bright and a light breeze kept me from getting too warm. Seated in the center, as I came out of my reflections empowered and reaffirmed, I observed the meadow with the swaying grasses woven through with seasonal blooms of milkweed, daisies, black-eyed Susans and other flowers, above them, swallowtail butterflies played tag with each other – it all seemed so tranquil despite the obvious activity going on. The whole scene serving as a reminder that “creativity flows from a quiet mind”.
As a flight of goldfinches rose up from within this meadow and made their separate ways, I too got up and purposefully followed the path to take me back to my awaiting world. Just as I left the labyrinth the priory bell was rung calling all to prayer and morning service. I did not join – I had after all just completed my worship.

The labyrinth in Weston, Vermont
The meadow beyond.
Notice the swallowtail on the milkweed at center lower half?!
A labyrinth I visited in Cape Cod some years ago. Set amidst tall trees, it gives the sense of being in a cathedral.
A labyrinth in upstate New York

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Keep It Simple

I can feel the quickening. We turned the clock forward last Sunday. The temperature got close to 50 degrees yesterday. While its back to the 40s today, Friday looks promising – it could get as high as 60 degrees! Yes, I can sense winter’s grip loosening.

With that comes an almost overwhelming awareness that much needs doing in the garden. Especially if there is an upcoming occasion for which it must look tip-top. My garden Open Day is looming large. May 18 might still seem a bit far off but given the myriad tasks involved, the uncertainty of the weather and most significantly, my other commitments both personal and professional, that available time is shrinking. Between project deadlines and celebratory occasions, I must squeeze in the garden work. I’m feeling excited and apprehensive all at the same time. It’s a good problem to have.

To mitigate unnecessary stress and frustration, my focus is to simplify. I have nothing to prove. I don’t have to pretend to be super-anybody. I decided to skip starting plants from seed – my schedule just doesn’t have the time to tend to them this year. Instead, I’m getting young plugs of native plants to add to the meadow and vegetable plot. Even for that I was beginning to get anxious about getting them all planted before open Day till I thought more calmly and realized that the plants for summer and fall can most assuredly wait till after that day.

The bones or hardscaping of the garden are already in place. So, there is a sense of order and flow to the design. Some features are focal points and others are backdrops to the plantings which are the true stars. To shine that light on the plants, I’m sticking to a less is more attitude. Less variety, more numbers of the plants. Taking my cue from those stunning swathes of snowdrops or fields of poppies one sees in Europe, I’m going to plant in larger groups and have these groups complement each other. This should highlight forms, colors and texture to the meadow giving it a cohesive and distinct character. I hope.

Spatial identity for the garden is important and by keeping it simple and timeless, the different areas remain unique yet work together as a whole.

Keeping it simple, does not mean bland or generic. This is where details matter. Sculptures, pots and other features like fountains, troughs and seating bring style and personality. These can change or evolve as one desires. There is a certain feature I’m working on for this year – I’m hoping it will all come together in time for May 18. If not, it will be by next year. I’m not going to stress myself out. However, my fingers are crossed.

In the early years, I prided myself on doing as much if not all the work by myself. I had fewer responsibilities and obligations. And a whole lot more youthful energy. These days, I’m happy to bring in some help. What the English refer to as a jobbing gardener – someone who comes in when extra chores or heavy work needs doing during the season. It has made my life so much more manageable. Now, if I’m in the throes of meetings and appointments, I can still get those time sensitive garden jobs addressed. Such a relief. No sense in trying to do too much in too little time. I just wish I’d understood that much earlier instead of all the pressure I used to put on myself to act as though I was superwoman.

As Isaac Newton put it – Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy. And now, neither am I.

Note:  I’m currently busy with my second collection of the Printed Garden products. I’m sharing with you some of the pillow samples. The square pillows are 18×18 inches and the rectangular ones are 14×20. I would love to hear your thoughts ( favorites?) about them. So please drop a line or two in the comments column! Thank you!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar