Today was a quintessential New England autumn day. Temperatures were mild, the sky was richly blue, and the landscape glowed with earthy colors: red, yellow, orange. On this quintessentially New England day, I did something that felt quintessentially Midwestern: I got lost in a corn field.

The Stonewall Farm has designed a corn maze on their White Brook property here in Keene: a chance for this non-profit educational organization to broaden their outreach (and fund-raising) during a time of year when everyone’s thoughts are turned towards corn, pumpkins, and hayrides. Although I hail from Ohio where cornfields are plentiful, I’ve never walked through one much less navigated a corn maze. The maze, I read, features over a mile and a half of meandering trails. “The journey from beginning to end,” the Stonewall Farm website assures me, “should take you anywhere from 45 minutes to 1-1/2 hours or more to solve.” Apparently I’m on the “slow-poke” end of the corn-maze spectrum since it took me nearly 2 hours to learn an essential life fact. After 20-some years of schooling and the completion of a PhD, I am (just barely) smarter than 4 acres of corn.

The Stonewall Farm corn maze has been open to visitors for several weekends now, but this is the first weekend where I’ve been in Keene to check it out. Its meandering trails were muddy from all the rain we’ve been getting in the (repeated) aftermath of Hurricane Whoever, so navigating the maze offered more than the usual number of challenges. I’ve always thought that I had a good sense of direction: I can navigate a woodland trail with the best of them, especially if I have a good map. But corn mazes are mapless, and cornfields in general lack easily recognizeable landmarks. Believe me, it’s very, very easy to get completely disoriented and a-mazed in a corn maze…and therein lies a great opportunity for fun and edification.

Never having been to a corn maze before, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I’d seen in the movies hedge mazes with meandering pathways delineated by tall groomed shrubbery, but the trails in a corn maze are much narrower. At all times in a corn maze, you can hear disembodied voices of people on different paths than yours; at times, you can hear the radio playing at the end of the maze, your ultimate goal. But even though you can hear voices and music, you have no way of knowing how to get to these sounds even though they seem to be imminently close at hand. In a word, part of what’s a-mazing about a maze is the way it leads you to distrust your senses: when you do come to the finish point, you are naturally surprised because you’d given up all hope of being anywhere near it.

Both labyrinths and mazes have been used as metaphors for the spiritual path. As Rebecca Solnit notes in her delightful book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, labyrinths and mazes are distinctly different, each with their own theological import. Labyrinths like the famous four-quadrant pavement maze inlaid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral represent the individual’s journey toward God. Spiritual aspirants walked these wending pathways as a kind of site-centered pilgrimage: if you couldn’t afford a trip to Jerusalem, you walked a miniaturized version of Christ’s Via Doloroso by patiently pacing the path toward a labyrinth’s center. Labyrinths are “unicursal” in that they offer only one path that folds intricately upon itself. You can’t get lost in a labyrinth: as long as you have the patience and endurance to keep walking, you will get to the center, your goal attained. As such, labyrinths represent the gradual inevitability of God’s grace: unless you turn around or stop walking, you will eventually reach God at the end of your wandering, guaranteed.

Mazes are different. Whereas labyrinths, Solnit notes, represent “an inflexible route to salvation,” mazes symbolize “the confusions of free will without a clear destination.” In a maze, you can get terribly and even terrifyingly lost: after a while, all intersections start to look alike, so deciding between left, right, and straight can be a disorienting proposition. Part of the fun of today’s corn maze lay in finding (and repeatedly re-encountering) various signs and trivia questions that maze workers had planted throughout: with such signs as landmarks, you could make some attempt at orienting yourself upon realizing that, yes, you’d been to this particular intersection before. But unlike a labyrinth, which merely requires patience and durable shoe leather, a maze demands that you keep your head in order to reach the finish. If you choose your turns poorly, you can circle and re-circle the same ground in maze, walking and re-walking the same pathways without getting in any way nearer to your destination. Mazes, in a word, represent stuckness, the way we can get mired in the same old muddy paths time and time again.

Whereas labyrinths represent the inevitability of God’s grace, a maze seems very “Zen” to me: although it helps to keep your head in a maze, ultimately you can’t “think” your way to the finish line since the dead-ends and re-doublings of a well-designed maze serve to confuse your rational thought. Any given turn in a maze might take you on a time-consuming, dead-end detour; any given turn in a maze might take you on a time-consuming, finish-finding foray. As Solnit again notes, the “moral of mazes” is that “sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long way.” In my case, after trying to think my way out of the Stonewall Farm corn maze (and only succeeding in returning to the starting point twice for all my effort), the way I found the finish line was by consciously stopping all attempts to find it. Instead of trying to think or decide which path was “best,” whenever I came to a fork, I took the right-most branch; if that led to a dead-end, I turned around and took the next right, and the next, and the next. Zen Master Seung Sahn has an oft-repeated bit of advice for his students: “Only go straight, don’t know!” In my experience navigating the Stonewall Farm corn maze, I learned that “only go right, and watch out for mud” worked just as well.

Although I felt a bit foolish when I arrived at the finish point to discover that it had taken me over an hour and forty minutes–much longer than even families with small children–to navigate my way from start to finish, I can say I have a deeper appreciation for corn fields now. Never having gotten lost in a maze much less a cornfield before, I had no idea how lovely the sound of wind soughing through stalks can be. For all the sounds I heard of families shouting out to one another (“Hey, guys, come this way!” or “Joey, I’m over here!”), I never once heard a whiny-voiced kid ask “Are we there yet?” At journey’s end, there was a bell to ring, cheers from maze workers, and hayrides for tired tykes. Perhaps an ample hay-filled wagon pulled by sturdy steeds is an apt metaphor for heaven itself?

    In its own meandering, roundabout way, this is my contribution to the Ecotone biweekly topic, Plants in Place.