Odysseys for the Soul


The Untended Path

by Penelope Stuart Bourk

The labyrinth at Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island sits in a small clearing ringed by rain forest. Its elaborate four-lobed design and 11-circuit path are patterned after the floor of the medieval cathedral in Chartres, France. Yet with a difference — the labyrinth at Whidbey Institute is uncovered, outdoors, its path earthen, lined with hundreds of ankle-high, mostly rough-hewn stones. Decades in the moist Northwest have pocked the stones with spatters of lichen and thickening mosses, which lend the stones an aura of belonging. As a recent immigrant to the island, three years new and still finding my way, I especially appreciate the permanence these dappled stones represent.

During a short break at a recent retreat at the Institute, I sought out the labyrinth for contained reflection. Walking the labyrinth is not a new experience for me, yet it continues to astound. As a mythologist, artist, and traveler, I frequently encounter labyrinths in mythic stories and visual art, in varied structures and landscapes, across cultures, media, and millennia. I even find them in the growth rings of the wood I carve!

The labyrinth serves as a symbol of life’s journey, a medium for shamanic inquiries, a metaphor for spiritual pilgrimage, a prescribed walk for meditation, an intriguing path for the eye on jewelry and fabric. I am often struck by the efficiency of the labyrinth, how many steps in such a small area, how short a time a journey can take, and the unfailing invitation to presence. The labyrinth supports quiet movement at one’s own pace, without urgency or competition. It allows the walker to trace a path to the interior, to circle the center, to pause, to listen, to consider what one has to offer as well as what has been received, and then to unwind, returning to the beginning, a journey at once individual and universal, a respite from the rustle-tussle soccer fields and mall-mazes of our everydays.

Long ago I was taught to ask on entering, What would you have me know? As many times before, I curved around the first, then second, lobe of the Whidbey labyrinth, and I heard, as I sometimes do, an inner response. Watch your turns, it warned. Within the third quarter, the furthest from the threshold and so less noticeable from the entrance of the labyrinth, the stones flanking the path had all but disappeared beneath knee-high clumps of unruly grasses, towering Scottish thistles, and ankle-snagging, barbed-wire strands of wild blackberry. The path too dissolved under the invasive spread of tap-rooted dandelions, rambling chickweed, the seductive chartreuse of stinging nettle, and low mops of young meadow grass. My pace slowed, shoes sogged, my stride broke, and focus wavered as I threaded more cautiously through this uneven ambush. The disruption was also interior, like some diligent blood cell headed for the heart trapped unexpectedly in a thrombosed vein.

Many contemporary labyrinths are easily maintained. Painted on canvas, set in marble, stamped into concrete, all they require is an occasional shake, a swipe with a broom, or a swift hosing. Yet in wilder verdant landscapes, a labyrinth may pose different challenges. At Whidbey Institute, in previous years, twice-yearly weekend work parties rallied a dedicated group of volunteers, but this past year, as I recalled, there had been no such parties. Winding through the congested path, I considered the local “ripple-down” effect of the world economic crisis, the neglected labyrinth a subtle symbol of the altered economy. As income losses from so many cancelled reservations reverberated through the Institute, sudden adaptive challenges erupted. New issues had emerged. Leadership changed. Energies deflected to re-envision mission and realign programs. Falling revenues from fewer events led to staff lay-offs, disrupted communication, altered schedules, and fewer helping hands. Fewer visitors meant less well-trodden paths, fewer footfalls controlling growth. Add the unrelenting wonders of rain, sun, rich earth, and summer warmth and a dearth of volunteers. A perfect storm. Trying to hold focus, I wound through the clearer fourth lobe to the small central “island” with its encircled mound of gifted objects. I paused to survey the whole, to recollect, and to collect myself! To consider also the clear part of the path. What might I have to offer in light of what I had been given?

Retracing my steps, I once again pushed my way through the overwhelmed third lobe. In the outmost ring of the overgrown sector, I surprised myself, stopping suddenly. I knelt down on the matted path. My turn. I grasped an obtrusive weed and pulled — only to be astonished by the fierce tenacity of the tough tuft. Despite my good intentions and seeming solid grip, the weed held fast. After all, it was the native here, not I. These arthritic hands, ungloved, without implement, were no match, and a glance at my watch told me break time was over. I rose. Yet that brief encounter planted a seedling awareness, the plight of the untended path.

With resolve to return, I completed my rounds. Emerging from the labyrinth, I turned to face it, as I always do, in gratitude, and in order to take in the whole from the outside. It was then I noticed off to the left at the edge of the forest a plastic milk crate, a small pitch fork stuck in the ground beside it, perhaps left with hopes of help by whoever had cleared the other sectors of the labyrinth. I quickly checked the crate, discovering within it a molding pile of garden gloves, home now to spiders, earwigs, and the occasional lost slug. The sun had cleared the treetops so I spread the 26 gloves, not all paired, on the warming stones to dry.

During afternoon break, I retrieved the pitchfork and selected 13 stones to uncover. The gloves remained too clammy for comfort, so with feet alternating on the pitchfork and my bare hands pulling as hard as I could on what the fork pried loose, I broke a sweat long before I had cleared even one stone. How could the plants be so stuck? Feeling a little like Ali Baba, I moved one of the mottled stones to one side and followed the offending weed’s root to discover what was holding it. Burrowing down with my hands like some blind mole, I voiced a sudden Ha! My fingers caught on something rough and thick beneath. A rope to which the clever roots clung.

Beneath the ordered surface now gone awry — or should I say a-rye — a guiding course extended, decades old, this rope likely set down at the initial construction to chart the placement of the stones — all unknown to the uninitiated. Alone and uninformed, I had entered a dimension I had not previously considered in a labyrinth — down, deeper — and so discovered, taking my turn, a secret thread through, like Theseus and Ariadne in the Cretan labyrinth, connections up and down, past and present, inward and out, hidden and found. For so many reasons, a path may wait untended. Yet beyond all reason, what path yet waits with turns extending to tend you?

Penelope Stuart Bourk's work is inspired by myth. Her essays appear in journals, newspapers, and books. Her sculptures and presentations are incorporated into leadership programs and exhibits at conference centers, universities, schools, and churches in the Pacific Northwest. Spirit Caves explores the sacred feminine. Empty Nest considers transitions in aging. Weaving Odysseus Home, a 20-sculpture series in wood, bone, and fiber, draws on Homer’s Odyssey to create imaginal “islands of experience” juxtaposing images of venturing and abiding, transgression and transformation, war and reconciliation. View her work at penelopestuartbourk.com