Every year, when I start the design process in May, I shuffle through the lists of ideas that I accumulate over time. I’ve always wanted to do interesting themes that provide good conversation starters. We’ve done a lot of myths and fables, as well as creatures like mermaids and unicorns. The theme has to give our employees something to talk to visitors about, and lend itself to a beautiful design and a good physical maze. The theme also has to have enough complexity to hold MY attention for almost four months, as I will be talking about it to countless visitors.
Most recently, I’ve wanted to create themes that have some deeper purposes. 2020, in particular, was a year that I struggled to come up with a maze theme. May 2020 was kind of a dark time, and I had planned a wolf for that year’s maze–but it just didn’t feel right. I felt like I really needed to acknowledge how uncertain everything felt, so I was thinking a lot about hopefulness, empathy, long-term thinking–but abstract concepts don’t provide a visual we can cut into the cornfield! Finally, I realized that the tiny water bear was the perfect symbol of resilience–I had the theme and the design came quickly.
In 2021, I was again thinking about what we (all of us!) need – and we need more cats! But we also need science. 2021’s theme, Schrödinger’s Cat and Other Thought Experiments, featured a playful cat, intriguing quantum mysteries, and some thought-provoking questions to wrestle with.
So, 2022… in some ways things still feel kind of dark. In just thinking about environmental issues (leaving aside political/economic/cultural upheaval), what’s happening can be overwhelming. Extreme weather, fires, extinctions, habitat loss, loss of biodiversity, climate change–it’s hard to know what to do in our day to day lives, or even how to feel. It sometimes seems like the problems are so big that they are hard to look at – it can be like staring into the sun.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, one of our off-season projects is working on restoring some of the oak savanna and prairie that were originally present here prior to the 1840’s. We’ve been removing invasive, non-native plants and trees, and burning areas to replicate the conditions in which the prairie and savanna plants evolved. It’s work that feels good on many levels–it’s very hard and physical; it’s all outdoors; it follows the rhythm of the seasons. It’s also sometimes kind of dangerous, as the slopes are very steep and rocky. It’s rewarding work, as you can see what you’ve accomplished, sometimes at the end of a day of clearing trees, and sometimes years later when you start to see plants growing that weren’t apparent before. And as a person who often deals with anxiety, one of the things that helps me the most is spending as much time as possible outside.
I decided that I wanted to incorporate some of the ideas about ecological restoration into the maze. There are some very old oak trees on the farm–so maybe an oak tree? I began to research tree designs, thinking about Celtic or Norse myths, maybe Yggdrasil or a World Tree or a Sacred tree of some sort. But were people in general as interested in trees as I am? That’s always at the back of my mind–how can we capture the imagination of all ages of visitors?
I worked on maze ideas for weeks, sketching and looking for inspiration. I usually spend a lot of time on Pinterest, looking at images and art styles. I particularly liked the Glasgow Style with the emphasis on stylized natural forms. I did some drafts with trees, which were okay-ish. I started thinking about what it is about trees that’s so great, and that’s when the theme of biophilia began to emerge. Trees are great. Sometimes we forget how great they are, because we are super busy with a million other things. But when we have time–and take time–to be out where there are other living things, we feel better. And in turn, a connection to the natural world allows us to really see what it is we are trying to save. I think that we need to start from a place of connection and love for the living beings around us that are at risk if we are to find solutions to the serious environmental problems that we have created.
And I also have a ton of thoughts about kids and nature play, biophilic design principles for buildings and interiors, the connection between humans and pets, attention restoration theory–all kinds of biophilia-adjacent possible topics to explore.
So, I was even more determined to do a tree. I thought more about biophilia and how it could be our theme for the year. I sketched more trees, some animals, lots of leaves (which will BTW be extremely challenging for maze-goers), but there was still something missing. It somehow took me forever to realize that in a maze about biophilia, it’s not just about nature: it’s about us as well. We are part of the natural world, even if we sometimes forget it. I needed a human in the picture.
After realizing that I needed a human, it all came together. A child on a tree swing, animals hiding in the leaves and bark, Glasgow Style-inspired foliage. A big idea–biophilia– that we can hopefully turn into interesting activities and conversations for visitors, and also interesting animals like snakes and frogs and owls and bats.
We hope we will have many visitors this fall out to the farm to spend some quality time with family and friends in the natural world, and we are looking forward to many conversations about trees (and other things!)