My son and I recently visited a labyrinth, tucked away on the wooded grounds of Camp New Hope between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough.
I’ve been told there are two labyrinths in the vicinity, but I have yet to find the second one. I heard about the sites from David McCullough, author of “The Unending Mystery: a Journey through Labyrinths and Mazes” (Anchor Books, 2004). At the outset he offers these definitions:
“Nowadays, a labyrinth is a single circuitous path that leads uninterrupted to a center, while a maze is a puzzle with many forks in the road that demand choices. ... It might be useful to think of the labyrinth and the maze as the heads and tails of a coin.”
You might object to these definitions, perhaps citing the treacherous Cretan labyrinth of Minos and the human sacrifices performed there. Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, infatuated with Theseus, gives him not only a sword but also a spool of thread with which to retrace his steps and escape the maze after slaying the Minotaur. (Soon afterward Theseus abandons Ariadne on a nearby island. Typical heroic behavior. Sidekicks generally make better husbands than do heroes, but that’s another story). For now let’s stick with Mr. McCullough’s definitions and the two sides of his imaginary coin. As he points out, the distinction is a useful one.
The Camp New Hope labyrinth consists of a series of interlocking straight and semi-circular paths on a modestly high clearing among mostly white oaks and maples. The paths are bordered by white chunks of quartzite gathered from the site.
I know these rocks; a similar geology predominates in much of the county. Not the flat sedimentary feldspars and slates from which foundations and chimneys are built, the milky stones resemble large spoonfuls of drop-biscuit dough just before baking, pierced by transparent hexagonal crystals. These rocks don’t stack well. The “walls” they form here rise no taller than the height of the largest stone, eight to 10 inches or so.
Stepping on to the path of ground green and blue glass one at first walks toward the destination: an outcropping of quartzy boulders at the heart of the figure. Following the trail, however, one’s feet are diverted first left in a tight counter-clockwise arc, then spun 180 degrees into a more gradual clockwise sweep.
I tried counting steps between turns, wanting to anticipate the directional changes, but it’s difficult to do.
Before long we surrendered volition to the path, allowing it to lead us. Three or four minutes in we found ourselves walking the outermost ring, describing the longest, gentlest curve yet, before a sudden right angle and then the final line segment that opens on to the center. No matter how many times Gus and I followed the path it never once occurred to me (though it did to my 9-year-old son) simply to step over the rock borders, cut to the chase. Arrival at the end of the path, whether traveling from outside in or inside out, always came as a surprise.
Before long we surrendered volition to the path, allowing it to lead us.
I have called myself many things over the years, often using descriptors too profane to repeat here. But one epithet I’ve never applied to myself is “writer,” in part because I’m married to one. The written word is her domain; goodness knows I have enough hobbies already. When the editor asked me to contribute to My View, I at first tried to refer him to my better half. Then he showed me a list of the other contributors: good, smart people, all involved with admirable and interesting projects, causes and principles. Good writers. It is an honor to be included among them.
I don’t know much about writing, but it occurs to me that if one had a story to tell, a labyrinthine approach might not be the worst one to take.
My story, like everyone else’s, is marked by unexpected twists and turns, digressions, lateral detours. I would begin it, probably, with a trip to Mexico in 1987. After graduating from Chapel Hill High School I traveled to the city of Cuernavaca in search of a legendary linguist, Ivan Ilich, and instead found myself apprenticed to a potter in pursuit of “la forma pura,” pure form, quoting Carlos Castaneda and Marcus Aurelius from his hammock while I mixed clay and glazes, loaded the kiln. Intent as I was on gaining fluidity both in Spanish and in the flexible, rotary language of the potter’s wheel, I became something of a linguist of the physical.
In the ensuing years I have experimented and blundered with a variety of tools, materials, and tongues, constantly cross-referencing and analogizing the processes of one against the others. I have found connections, threads, some of which might not always be obvious to the casual observer. These threads are what I hope to follow and discuss in the months to come. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll turn a corner and step right into the heart of the matter.
The coin is tossed. Heads or tails?
John Svara lives in Durham. To see more of his work go to www.formandflaw.com
To visit the labrynth
The Camp New Hope labyrinth is open to the public, but camp officials like to be informed in advance of a potential visit. For details, go to www.campnewhope.org