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Into the garden maze

Musings on mazes.

Art by Shania O'Brien.

Like most of my articles, this one began with a dream. Alice and I were tasked with running a marathon through a hedge maze, the light at the end of the tunnel being a football match at Redfern Station. Deep emerald shrubs turned to dull concrete as we raced through, and the distant sounds of steam locomotive whistles echoed against the maze’s walls. I do not remember how we got out, or if we ever did, but I awoke longing for the labyrinth. 

I visited the Neild Avenue Maze in Paddington on a Friday. The overcast sky still whispered of the wet weather from the week prior, but my adventure could not be rained upon — literally or otherwise. Spring air weighed on us as we trekked through Glenview Lane, Sam stopping at every bloom of flowers to photograph them. 

According to my sources, a vast undercover network of experts I met during my travels, the maze was planted in the mid-1980s on land that had once belonged to the houses behind them, 5 and 7 Stephen Street. In 1912, the owners of 5 Stephen Street sold the maze section of their property to the owners of 7 Stephen St, John and Elsa Bolsdon. Fifty-three years later, their son sold the maze to the Council of the City of Sydney, who intended to turn it into a rest area and playground. But the park was transferred from the City of Sydney Council to Woollahra Council in approximately 1968 when administrative boundaries were changed.

The maze itself is quaint, composed of concentric circles with vines clinging to the bordering walls. A plane tree towers over most of it, the shade from the leaves creating patterns on the sun-dappled ground. The hedges are knee-high, a far cry from the monstrous counterpart my dreams conjured. 

“Let’s race to the centre,” Sam said soon after we got there, his mind already buzzing with thoughts of plotting the perfect route — only to backtrack after I beat him there, instead pondering whether the middle of a maze was even a worthwhile destination. 

My dream came back to me when I wandered through the hedges of Neild Avenue, its multiple paths evoking the great mazes of literature and mythology. Traditionally, the definition of a ‘labyrinth’ called for a maze with no dead ends. But this unicursal path, which appeared on Greek coins circa 430 BC, does not make logical sense considering the purpose of its creation: the myth of the Minotaur, an Ancient Greek monster imprisoned inside Daedalus’ Labyrinth under the island of Crete for its appetite for human flesh. However, that image persisted invariably until the Renaissance, when hedge mazes rose in popularity.

Symbolically, mazes represent everything from the intense yearning to escape the thicket of tradition, to the path to enlightenment. Most prevalently, prehistoric labyrinths have served as traps for malevolent monsters and malefic spirits. But many Roman labyrinths are designed into the entrances of buildings, suggesting apotropaic purposes. On the flip side, American art historian Carl Schuster believed mazes were a haven for a trickster — citing the Indian demon Ravana’s dominion over labyrinths and the European notion that mazes housed rogues. On the brighter side, however, author Ben Radford conducted an investigation into the spiritual and healing effects of labyrinths, interrogating why so many of them have been constructed in churches and hospitals. The primary reason was seemingly contemplation, as walking among the turnings is said to quiet the mind and release the brain from thoughts of the outer world. 

In her 2020 novel Piranesi, Susanna Clarke explores the impossible space of a labyrinth. The protagonist is an amnesiac man who is lost in an immense house with countless rooms, most of which are comprised of nonsensical materials like wind and clouds. Apart from being an exercise in how many classic influences I could recognise, the process of losing and finding oneself is at the heart of the narrative. Clarke uses the metaphor of the labyrinth to ask what we’ve lost on our quest to rationality, heavily drawing on Jorge Luis Borges’ 1947 short story La casa de Asterión. Asterion was created from the Cretan Minotaur, the story exploring the nature of madness and the monotony of the creature’s life inside the Labyrinth. “All the parts of my house are repeated many times, any place is another place,” Asterion muses, “the house is the same size as the world; or rather, it is the world.”

Both stories contain paths that fork and eventually lead nowhere. In an interview with The Guardian, Clarke likened the spirals of a labyrinth to the process of writing: “You start with an image or the fragment of a story, something that feels like it has very deep roots into the unconscious, like it is going to connect up with a lot of things.” I have found the practice of authorship to be riddled with tangles that often mesh together, usually only to create a knot that refuses to unravel. There are times when I wish I could follow Ariadne’s thread all the way to the end, the incandescent red lighting the path. 

I believe mazes are intrinsic quests for meaning. A double-edged sword that is home to both pattern and chaos, order and terror. From a bird’s eye view, the answer is simple, the path clear. Perhaps there is solace to be found in the phenomenon being man-made and not naturally occurring. But once you’re inside, it is not uncommon to be driven mad by fear, the seemingly endless passageways blending together in a bewildering blur. Ancient labyrinths were symbols of losing your way, and sometimes even losing your identity. Today, there isn’t as much defeat tied into that particular circumstance, as it might mean the possibility of beginning anew, a once-tarnished slate wiped clean. 

There are two iron doors on the left wall of the hedges in Neild Avenue, the shape of a maze chiselled onto them. I sat and stared at them for as long as it took to make sense of the pattern, only to find a different answer than the one I was looking for. There isn’t always order to fall back upon, no motifs to emerge from the intricacies of repetition. Labyrinths are structures we are surrounded by, ones we cannot help but enter. 

I am back in my dream as I write this, inside the labyrinth. Alice is not here this time, and I do not hear the trains in the back. As much as I want to force cohesive design onto my surroundings, I cannot when I am blind to the bigger picture. So until then, I will spin thread and create stories out of the disarray, I will build structures tall enough to climb and sit atop. There is always meaning to be created, to be excavated. Now I trudge on in search of its centre, with tentative hope that someone will meet me there and we’ll find red string to follow out.

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