Sunday, 27 May 2012

Elephant No. 238: Mazes

I was looking at some drawings by Keith Haring earlier today, and it struck me that many of them look like mazes. So I decided to try making a maze for today's elephant.

The oldest-known maze is thought to be the Cretan labyrinth at Knossos, which dates to about 1000 B.C. Although usually grouped together, mazes and labyrinths are considered by some to be different entities. Mazes can twist and turn and double back on themselves, while labyrinths generally have a single way through that is not as difficult to follow.

Historically, mazes have been built with walls, hedges, crops, masonry, mirrors and more. Designed as physical challenges through which a person must walk, many of the world's most elaborate mazes contain towers from which to locate a lost maze-walker.

Hedge maze at Longleat, England, 2005.
The wooden structures can be climbed to locate lost maze-walkers.
Photo: Rurik

Mazes are also used as psychological experiments assessing spatial learning and navigation. These types of experiments usually use rats or mice, and test for things such as anxiety, memory and cognitive impairment.

Paper-drawn mazes are a relatively recent invention, and today are often computer-generated using complicated algorithms. During the 1970s, there was something of a "maze craze", with a wealth of books and magazines featuring mazes for all ages.

Unconventional paper maze by Yonatan Frimer.

Traditional paper mazes involve passing only once along a given pathway, although there are various kinds of "super mazes" today which involve 3-D simulations, crossing multiple pages, doubling back along the same pathway, and so forth.

Many countries have permanent mazes, usually made of hedges and crops such as maize. Although there are outdoor mazes in virtually every part of the world, they are most prevalent in the British Isles and North America. The world's largest permanent maze is the Samsø Labyrinten in Finland, which covers six hectares (15 acres).

Mazes have even made their way into art. These include maze wall murals on public buildings, and meditative mosaic floor labyrinths in churches such as Chartres Cathedral.

Labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France.

For today's elephant, I thought I'd try making something fairly traditional, with layers of lines and rows, and something more unconventional. For the second elephant, I took my inspiration from mazes like Yonatan Frimer's zebra maze above.

I started with a pencil sketch for each. For the conventional maze, I did a general elephant outline, knowing that I'd have to add concentric lines inside and out. For the second maze, I drew a festival elephant.

For the conventional maze, I started from a set of helpful online instructions. The idea appears to be that you make outlines around outlines, then erase bits of the lines to create gaps. This is all easier said than done with an irregular shape like an elephant, but I did my best.

Once I had drawn all the pencil lines, I decided I'd better map a route through the whole thing before committing myself with pen. This drawing is only 17.75 x 17.75 cm (7 x 7 inches), so the lines are very fine. Even I got lost, despite knowing the general route. If I were walking such a thing, I'd need to carry a flare gun so that people could find me before I starved to death.

When I thought I'd mapped a way across the page, I went over the lines with black pen. Surprisingly, there was only one spot in which I had boxed myself in. This was easily fixed with a judicious bit of correction fluid.

Because I wanted the elephant to show a bit better, I lightly shaded the general shape with a coloured pencil. This makes no difference to the maze's functionality. Turns out it doesn't make much difference to the look of the thing, either.

Next, I turned my attention to the less traditional maze. This doesn't nearly as much time to draw as a conventional multi-layered maze, but it's actually just as hard to figure out.

To make it interesting, you want the pathway to snake through the whole drawing, which means leaving gaps along the way, while also blocking people from taking shortcuts or haring off in the wrong direction. I found the blocking part the more challenging of the two, because you don't want to make it obvious by drawing a big black line where it doesn't make any design sense.

In this one, I actually blocked my route twice and had to add correction fluid in two spots, rather than the one I'd done for the more conventional maze. I also had to close off a gap which would have allowed someone to avoid half the route.

Once both mazes were ready to go, I had to make sure they worked. Instead of tracing them with my finger—which can be surprisingly disorienting—I used a red pen to wend my way through each.

I actually found the second maze harder to negotiate, even though I more or less knew the way through. It's probably because it looks like a regular drawing, rather than a series of paths, and the little gaps in the drawing can be surprisingly hard to find.

Making these was kind of fun, although the one with lots of lines was a bit tedious for someone like me. The lines are obviously not evenly spaced—a task that would have been pretty much beyond me—and they're probably too close together. That being said, it was an interesting exercise.

I liked making the second one far more, probably because it's more like drawing. I also liked the idea that a drawing can masquerade as a maze. If I were to make more, they would probably be like the second version.

Before I started making these, I actually didn't know that mazes were relatively easy to produce. I thought that complicated mazes could only be produced by computers or, at the very least, on graph paper. I was happy to find out that I was wrong. I'm also very grateful to Betty Nesmith Graham, who invented correction fluid.

Elephant Lore of the Day
At the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, orphaned baby elephants are kept in a stable each night. These are elephants that are still too young and too milk-dependent to be permanently returned to the wild.

Because the babies need to be fed at three-hour intervals, keepers sleep in bunks above each elephant's stall. A different keeper is assigned each night to prevent the elephants—and keepers—from becoming too attached.

Although the elephants remain nonchalant about different keepers, they are quite firm on feeding times. When speaking with National Geographic writer Charles Siebert in 2011, one keeper commented that there was no need for an alarm clock to know when it was time for the night feedings. Every three hours, the elephants would reach up their trunks and pull the blankets off of the keepers sleeping above them.

Baby elephants playfully tussle over a bottle of formula not finished by the little
blanketed elephant at the keeper's feet—David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya, 2011
Photo: Michael Nichols

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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