Can the Internet Save the Hedge Maze of 'S-Town'?
"That’s why we don’t have mazes in Shittown."
John B. McLemore, the main character in S-Town, the new podcast from Serial and This American Life, dedicates his life to many things — restoring antique clocks, climate change, fostering dogs — but it’s the labyrinthine hedge maze he built on his property in Woodstock, Alabama, that has the internet up in arms. The intrigue in the maze is sparked initially by the stunned reaction host Brian Reed has when he crests the hill and sees the maze for the first time in Chapter I. As the story continues, it’s clear that meticulously pruning and caring for his 64-solution maze, despite being riddled with anxiety and depression, is a critical part of both who John B. is and the story of S-town.
There are some spoilers ahead, especially if you haven’t listened to all of Chapter II. Otherwise, the spoilers are minimal.
Stemming from conversations on the small but mighty /stownpodcast subreddit, the hedge maze, which is currently abandoned and in disrepair, might have a chance after all.
Early on in the podcast, John B. recites the coordinates to his land for Reed to find his property on Google Earth, and while Reed doesn’t share all of the numbers in Chapter I of the podcast, of course the internet quickly figured it out.
“That was one of the most fun projects I’ve done in my life, and you know, it was also one of the most foolish,” says McLemore in S-Town’s seventh and final chapter entitled “You’re beginning to figure it out now, aren’t you?” After asking why it was foolish, he replies, “At my death, this place out here only has one destination — it’s to be paved over with a Walmart or scrapped off. That’s why we don’t have mazes in Shittown.”
At the end of Chapter II, McLemore tragically commits suicide by drinking cyanide, leaving many questions. Invariably, what’s going to happen to the maze? Recent reports found that the maze has fallen into disrepair, which is not surprising considering how much TLC mazes need. Users on Reddit, feeling what could be described as an inevitable emotional connection to McLemore, have been searching for ways to ensure that it doesn’t disappear completely.
But how exactly would that be done?
Acquire the Land From Kendall Burt
The land on which the now-abandoned maze sits is owned at present by Kendall Burt — of the same Burt family that brought Reed and McLemore together in the first place, which also happens to be the family that owns K3 Lumber. This is the first — and perhaps biggest — challenge. In the final episode, Burt mentions he’d like to see the maze reach maturity, but then again, he purchases land as an investment for his lumber company.
So, the property would have to either be purchased from the Burt family or acquired through some other means. To that end, one user on r/stownpodcast claims to be in communication with a local girl who is working to protect the maze. According to that user:
She’s going to be meeting with two different lawyers as soon as she can get appointments with them nailed down to figure out what she can and can’t do legally. She is also going to be contacting University of Alabama’s History department as well as several different state historically societies and reserves.
Seeing the site preserved for historical significance would certainly be a creative, if unlikely, way to secure the property. But let’s pretend that’s already been done, and the land is already in the hands of those who’ve heard the podcast and want to save it. What comes next?
Restore the Dilapidated Maze
This would take a fair amount of work seeing as the maze has been without care since 2015. For starters, judging by the most recent photos, many of the hedges in the maze would have to be torn out and replaced entirely. Extensive weeding would also be necessary to clear the paths in between the hedges. From there, the task of planting new hedges and guiding their growth would begin.
As the late John Cushnie, famed British landscape designer, wrote for The Telegraph back in 2002, “Planting a maze is for the long term. You are only doing it once so make sure the roots of the plants are well catered for.” New plants should be together within a continuous bed, rather than in individual holes. Doing so will give the roots more room to expand and improve the thickness of the maze’s walls.
Find a Groundskeeper to Handle the Aftercare
Getting the shrubs in the ground is only half the battle. “Aftercare” involves intensive maintenance and guidance of the plants as they begin to grow. “The first spring after planting, lightly clip the young plants to encourage side shoots from the base,” says Cushnie. This is to help ensure that foliage remains all the way to ground level, and you don’t wind up with hedges that look like their pants are too short. Since McLemore’s maze has curves, lots of pruning up and down the sides of the plants will also be necessary to shape their growth. If people want a really tall maze, they’re going to have to bring in some ladders eventually.
Cushnie reminds gardeners to water the plants well. The South, however, isn’t always keen on rain, and if there’s a drought, this means water will need to either be pumped from a well or brought in.
All told, it would require a lot of work — likely more a project for a team than any single person — and again, that’s only if the land can even be wrested from Burt’s control. But, if these dedicated listeners continue to emerge from the corners of the internet, the maze might be able to be resuscitated, ensuring John B. McLemore’s legacy lives on.