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Walking a Venerable Path

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The classical three-circuit labyrinth
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The elaborate 11-circuit Chartres Cathedral labyrinth
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The classical seven-circuit labyrinth
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Ancient cultures around the world have used some version of the labyrinth, but today many people consider labyrinths an avenue for exploring spiritual aspects of life.
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The World is too much with us; late and soon, Getting
and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that
is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! –William
Wordsworth

If, as the poet says, the world has weighed you down lately and
you feel that your heart is no longer quite your own, you may find
the ease and quiet reflection you need in the roundabout of a
labyrinth. In a labyrinth, you’ll find no dead-ends, no decisions
as to the right way to go. One path leads from entrance to center.
As in life, hairpin turns and doubling back may mark your way, but
the route leads inexorably to your destination.

In materials as well as design, a labyrinth is limited only by
your imagination, and can be as grand or as humble as you please
“I’ve made them out of kitty litter on the floor that can be swept
up afterwards,” says Virginia Burt, landscape architect and
principal of Visionscapes, an Ontario, Canada company specializing
in gardens designed to foster spiritual awareness. Rocks, bricks
and paint on concrete or canvas are other materials that can
comfortably outline a labyrinth.

Although herbal labyrinths aren’t common, the long association
of herbs with knot gardens and parterres make them a natural fit
for use in labyrinths. If labyrinth lovers — and there’s a network
of them worldwide — need another good reason for using herbs in a
labyrinth, it would be the strong spiritual benefits attributed to
labyrinth-walking. Tracing its twisted spiral path (see Page 45) is
said to quiet the mind, ease grief, inspire creativity and provide
insights into life issues and problems. What better addition to
this journey than the scent of herbs?

WALKING MEDITATION

“Labyrinths are a sacred space,” Burt says. “I describe the
experience as the Three I’s: initiation, at the entrance;
illumination, during the inward journey and at the center; and
integration, on the outward journey. It’s a walking
meditation.”

The heady scent of herbs adds another dimension to the spiritual
and emotional impact of a labyrinth. And if all this discussion of
the spiritual seems a little far-out to the practical-minded herb
gardener, planting a labyrinth can be counted as one more novel way
to enjoy gardening with our favorite plants.

Ancient cultures all over the world have used some version of
the labyrinth, as have medieval cathedrals like the one at
Chartres, France. These serpentine gardens went out of fashion in
the ultra-rational 18th century. But today, many people are
considering labyrinths as they seek the spiritual in their
lives.

In San Francisco, Grace Cathedral has opened its labyrinth for
Peace Walks every Friday from noon to 1:30 p.m. This midday
opportunity is intended as a time to reflect, pray and “meditate on
the peace within yourself, your family and the global family.” Upon
completion of the labyrinth walk, paper is provided should walkers
desire to write down thoughts or feelings resulting from the time
of reflection.

A DOWNTOWN LABYRINTH PARK

These days, labyrinths are turning up in hospitals, psychiatric
centers, prisons, schools, churches and other institutions. In
Toronto a mown-grass labyrinth sits smack in the middle of the
city, tucked between office buildings, a downtown shopping mall and
a church. Laid out in the summer of 2000, the labyrinth was a
millennium project of the Toronto Labyrinth Community Network and
the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“The labyrinth is a tool, a vehicle. People who wouldn’t go to
church will do this,” says Anne Tanner, a doctor of ministry and
labyrinth facilitator in Toronto.

“We were thrilled to be a part of it because it is a unique
opportunity for a park and we think it provides a hybrid of
passive/active recreational opportunities,” says Claire
Tucker-Reid, general manager, Parks and Recreation. “It’s very
heavily used,” she adds. “Any time you go by in the summer there
are at least three people in the labyrinth, especially at lunchtime
because it’s a bit of a break from the workplace. And we’ve had
weddings there, too. So it’s well-utilized — beyond our
expectations.”

No one’s sure just what gives labyrinths their special appeal.
Some people claim the alternating right and left sections help
balance the two sides of our brains. Some say the combination of
mental focus and repetitive body motion promotes a meditative
state. Whatever the reason, more and more people are becoming
devoted labyrinth walkers, and more institutions and even
individuals are adding labyrinths to their grounds.

THERAPEUTIC FOR PATIENTS AND STAFF

“You can make it with a lawnmower or a pointy stick or
whatever you want.” –Virginia Burt

In 2001, Virginia Burt planted a labyrinth for Homewood Health
Centre, a psychiatric facility near Guelph, Ontario.

Burt chose an 11-circuit, Chartres-based pattern, 54 feet
across, planted in mother of thyme (Thymus vulgaris). “That’s the
type that stands up, not the creeping one, which would obscure the
path,” she says. The thyme keeps a low profile as it defines the
boundary of the labyrinth.

Every program at Homewood – whether for geriatric patients,
substance abuse, anxiety/depression, eating disorders, trauma —
uses the structure to some extent. “We’ve found when other things
don’t work, like group therapy or psychotherapy, this seems to
really help motivate the patient,” says Mary Goy, a Homewood
nurse.

Patients can walk the labyrinth on their own time, and staff
have access to the garden, too. “You can go on your lunchtime if
you’re feeling a little stressed and walk through and just leave
everything in the center, then go back out to work,” Goy says.
“It’s like a big weight has been lifted.”

CHURCH’S COMMUNITY RESOURCE

In the Quebec City suburb of Sillery, a new herbal labyrinth
opened in the summer of 2003. It’s the pet project of Mia Anderson,
rector of the Anglican Church of St. Michael and St. Matthew.
Although the garden is on church property, at the corner of a busy
neighborhood thoroughfare, Anderson sees it as a multipurpose
site.

“I’m really interested in contemplative prayer, wordless prayer
and walking meditation,” she says. “I also was interested in
planting an attractive space that the church can offer to the
neighborhood. And it was as if all those things came together. The
idea is this is a community resource.”

Anderson had herbs in mind from the very start, but the design
presented a challenge. The labyrinth is modeled on a little-known
example at Reims Cathedral in France, but, she says, “I wanted a
shortcut to the center, which is absolutely not classical at all.
Because it’s a garden and has the potential for garden parties, I
really wanted to be able to set the samovar in the center and have
a tea party.”

Jacques Hebert, who designed the labyrinth, eventually found a
way to incorporate the shortcut into an adaptation of the classical
pattern. The result is a labyrinth 50 feet across with just five
lanes, each lane bordered in herbs on one side and shrubs on the
other.

For the shrub sections, Anderson chose dwarf forsythia mixed
with alpine currant. For the herbs, she and two helpers planted
several varieties of thyme, sage, rue, lovage, fennel, parsley,
basil, marjoram, chives, and winter and summer savory.

WILDLIFE WALK THE PATH TOO

Animals pay frequent visits to the herbal labyrinth behind the
Foxglove Shop and Gallery in tiny Freeville, New York, near Ithaca.
“We have a lot of deer that really enjoy walking it,” co-owner
Suzanne Hoback says. “I see hoof prints all the time, but the
animals don’t eat anything, I guess they don’t like the taste. One
time I also came upon two baby woodchucks playing on the path.”

The Foxglove labyrinth is affiliated with the nearby bed and
breakfast Suzanne and her husband, Chris, run. “Our notion when we
started it was that it would be a place different from the Holiday
Inn or even other B and B’s,” Chris recalls. “We wanted it to be
somewhere you could come and there would be no TV, but lots of
books, where people would read, interact with the other guests and
find opportunities to stop the noise and be creative.”

The labyrinth is part of that idyllic picture. “It depends on
the individuals,” Chris says. “We’ve had some guests come
specifically to be here and meditate in the labyrinth. We’ve had
church groups come to spend the afternoon walking the labyrinth.
And we have people who are just interested in the herbs and the
garden.”

The Hobacks built their labyrinth themselves, based on
instructions Chris found on the Internet. Inspiration came from an
article Suzanne read on labyrinths and stress relief. She thought
it would be good for guests because many of them come for special
events, such as weddings and nearby college graduations, and
“they’re really nervous,” she says. “I personally enjoy walking it
— and I enjoy taking care of it. I think of that part as
maintenance meditation.”

A 600-foot gravel pathway lined with herbs runs through the
classic seven-circuit labyrinth. “It’s all useful stuff,” Suzanne
says. The garden contains coneflower (Echinacea), prostrate
rosemary, French thyme, sage, hyssop, lady’s mantle, chives,
lavender and lungwort. An arbor at the entrance is draped in golden
hops. Flowers such as candytuft, gooseneck loosestrife, sundrops
and phlox are scattered throughout the circuit.

Care isn’t a problem, she says. “If you prune them early enough
in summer — mid-June — the herbs will come back and be bushy, but
won’t be so tall as to take over. The only really bad one is apple
mint — that guy won’t stay in its little trench at all,” she says
with a laugh.

RIGHT IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD

Home gardeners also can build a labyrinth. That’s what Jim
Caddell did at his modest home in Richardson, Texas, on the
outskirts of Dallas.

“I first ran across the idea on a website somewhere and it was
love at first sight. It was a beautiful pattern,” he says. “So I
drew one on the ground and tried walking it, and oh, wow, it’s a
great feeling. You suddenly felt a little bit of peace.” So Caddell
got a load of leftover bricks from a friend who’d just finished a
house, and put in his first labyrinth, a little three-circuit one.
Herbs seemed a natural accompaniment. But Caddell got too much of a
good thing — his paths were soon overrun by rampant herbs.

He had planted ornamental kale, different kinds of mint,
comfrey, thyme (“good because it was low but it likes to flop over
the edge”), oregano (“that tended to take over and colonize
everything”), yarrow (“it would burrow right through the holes in
the bricks and come up on the other side”), tarragon (“terribly
invasive, but pretty well roped off now”) and sage. The solution:
Move the herbs to the outside border and use the extra space to
construct a seven-circuit labyrinth 16 feet in diameter.

Caddell doesn’t attach much mysticism to his labyrinth — he
treats it pretty much like a lawn or patio. “I walk across it
rather than walking it. It gives me a calm feeling just to look at
it — I think they’re pretty.” The new labyrinth has pockets dotted
throughout for low plants like yellow sedum and ice plant. And his
herb garden has expanded to include lamb’s ears, hellebore, sweet
Annie, Mexican marigold mint, cilantro, basil, rue, germander,
purple coneflowers and butterfly weed.

“Anybody can make a labyrinth,” he says. “You can make it with a
lawnmower or a pointy stick or whatever you want. I just happened
to have a bunch of leftover bricks and a blank spot in the
yard.”

As Virginia Burt says, “If you’re intrigued by labyrinths, build
one. Building a labyrinth is just as much a journey as walking
one.”

Mary Fran McQuade, a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion,
writes and gardens from her home near Toronto. Her city garden
includes herbs, flowers and flowering shrubs.

Published on Feb 1, 2005

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