I come tramping out of the woods near dusk. The stormclouds that threatened all day have unseamed into windblown cirrus, and the following pair of sentences run over and over through my head:
Labyrinths are artificial. A forest is a labyrinth self-imposed by pattern impulse on the preoccupied mind.
I am referring to the notion of the labyrinth in its original sense: a meditative device, designed not to confound physical progress but to facilitate metaphysical advancement. The appropriate image is that of a Benedictine friar, pacing the path of a spiral in the monastery garden, his mind carefully cleansed of human speech or worldly notions (except perhaps a fleetingly lingering concern for the well-being of the Trappist ale maturing in the monastery cellar), and contemplating the Name of God.
This notion of physical repetition as an act of cleansing for the mind has parallels in almost every culture: the mathematical mosaics of the Arabs, the rigid rituals of the Pythagoreans, the principles of zen. I wonder sometimes whether the labyrinth of Daedalus might not have been constructed with the purpose of enlightenment in mind. Borges, a man preoccupied with labyrinths, in one story conceives of the Minotaur as a plodding dullard, incapable of understanding the vastness of his prison because he can’t count beyond fourteen. To me it seems equally possible that the Minotaur was a monster of intellect, who chose to endlessly traverse the labyrinth in hopes that it might cause him to transcend the condemnation of his flesh.
The forest where I’ve been walking actually contains a literal labyrinth: a path in the shape of a figure eight with a tail coming off one end, like a crop circle or a petroglyph. My progress through it complicates this figure, adding detail where I detour to circle the trunk of a tree or to observe a fogbound marsh that has appeared by unknowable means with the change of the seasons, and no doubt will be gone again by spring. I run my palms along the patterns in the rough bark of big pines. I plunge off at random through thick brush, investigating glimpses of interesting mushrooms and ferns. At one point, I lie flat on my back in springy pine needles for a quarter of an hour, staring up at the canopy. Rarely do I encounter anything I haven’t seen before. What I do encounter is new instances of the familiar, new opportunities to engage with the details of the external world in the moment. I can’t admit to much ambition when it comes to spiritual transcendence (though if you read back in The Mossy Skull you’ll find I take sublime joy in pretending to it). What I can say is that more often than not, I enter forests seeking answers. Where does this story go? Why am I writing it? Why am I a writer? What the hell am I doing with my life? And more often than not, when I come out, I’ve found some.