A Catskill Catalog: Nov. 26, 2008

We have a little gem of a park right nearby. Maybe the word park is less than clearly specific here. I have a friend who often reminds us that, here, we live in a park – mountains and valleys, state land and privately owned – the whole area inside the Blue Line boundaries is the Catskill Park, basically, from Johnson Ford, Kingston to Bridge Street, Margaretville.
The gem I have in mind is a little 50-acre park well west of the Catskill Blue Line: the SUNY Delhi Outdoor Education Center a few miles east of Delhi Village on state Route 28. It is marked by a little, unobtrusive brown sign that reads “SUNY Delhi EDU.” Turn down the dirt driveway to the parking area below. This Outdoor Education Center is well worth the visit. It’s a magical place.
It is also a working classroom. Delhi College offers Associate Degree programs in adventure recreation, park and outdoor recreation, and environmental studies. This piece of land along the Little Delaware River is groomed and manicured by Delhi students for the express purpose of providing the public with a little bit of recreation, education, and adventure in nature’s outdoors. A regular hands-on learning lab.
And a great place for a walk. The trails are wide swaths that wind down the hill from the ample parking area to the flat below. There is a butterfly garden and a fire circle, a sundial and a sugar shack. Rustic benches are tucked away in private copses of trees and on knolls overlooking natural vistas. Outdoor tables invite a picnic by the Little Delaware, in warmer weather, anyway. A couple of spots on the river are groomed for fishing access in season. It is a really nice place.
The star attraction, I think, is the large labyrinth cut into the meadow that sits on the flat at the base of the park’s sidehill. A labyrinth is an ancient construction. According to Greek mythology, Daedalus the artificer, a kind of early engineer, built for King Minos of Crete an elaborate spiral structure to hold the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, and all dangerous. The path from the outside to the inner circle of the Labyrinth was so intricate, that Daedalus himself almost couldn’t find his way out.
A labyrinth is different from a maze in that it has no false passageways, no puzzling dead-ends. Rather, the path in a labyrinth twists and turns, doubles back on itself, sometimes seemingly away from the center destination, but leads inexorably to the center.
That’s what makes walking a labyrinth such a reflective, even spiritual, experience. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Labyrinth became a feature of the great medieval cathedrals, a circular path that spirals its way inward, toward a center. Walking the labyrinth became a kind of compact pilgrimage, a spiritual journey that could be taken right on the cathedral floor.
Labyrinths became a feature of monastery gardens. Walking the labyrinth was a tool for meditation. Devotees would pray, meditate, and reflect as they walked, step by step, the intricate labyrinth path.
New Age spiritual seekers rediscovered the labyrinth sometime in the late ’60s.
Today the labyrinth is enjoying a wave of interest and popularity. Walking the Labyrinth is seen as a constructive exercise by both traditional religions and contemporary spiritualists.
The walker in the labyrinth often cannot see the way forward. Just taking the next right step, the next step forward, is enough. Because the path goes only one way, twisting toward the center, just taking the next step forward is enough to get you, eventually, to your destination.
Some pretty powerful lessons in that experience!
The labyrinth at the SUNY Delhi Outdoor Education Center is the nicest one I’ve ever seen. It begins under a wooden arch, somewhat Japanese in architecture, with bright orange suns painted on the arch supports. Bluestone flags lead your feet into the labyrinth.
I walked it in an inch or two of snow one cold November morning. This labyrinth is a good 50 feet in diameter, and the late-autumn remains of its path-lining shrubs, bushes, and wildflowers make following the path in your mind’s eye difficult. You have to let your feet find your way. You cannot see your way forward. You wind your way, often seeming to backtrack on your trail. Let the center be your reward.
The walk out of the labyrinth retraces your steps. The walk back up the hill to the car provides a few pleasant visual surprises: an old four-wheel cultivator in the woods under a tree, a modernist bluestone bench in a natural alcove off the trail.
Oh, your leashed dog is welcome to some outdoor education here, too.