On the Ground, in the Wild, a Path to Inner Peace

Reprinted from New York Times (December 20, 2007) by Anne Raver

Reisterstown, Md.

It was a gray, blustery December day when I walked the labyrinth in the woods behind Pamela White’s ranch-style house in Glyndon, an old community a few miles from my place. The town started out as a Methodist revival camp and a summer place, 10 degrees cooler than the city, for wealthy Baltimoreans. My grandmother used to go every summer and get closer to God under a big tent. The camp is long gone, and now the streets are lined with Victorian houses with wide porches, mixed in with 1950s ranch houses.


Ms. White has a two-acre stand of woods out back, with a low, curving stone wall at the edge of the forest, which slopes down to a natural bowl in the land where stones mark a spiraling path laid beneath tall oaks and poplars.

I met Ms. White, a garden designer, about a year ago in a master gardening composting class, where she showed off her homemade worm bin and gave me the recipe for a deer repellent that won’t wash off with the rain. She was bright and inquisitive, drove a little white pickup truck and appeared ready for anything in her tidy jeans and sturdy shoes. So when she told me about her labyrinth, I was intrigued.

Maybe I was looking for some connection to the ancients that could help me deal with two deaths in my family in one year — first my brother and then my mother. Or maybe I can’t stand the darkness that descends at this time of year, as the earth tilts away from the sun. I count the days until the winter solstice — Dec. 22 this year — when the days start to grow longer again.

The design of a labyrinth echos spirals in nature, from a snail’s shell to the inner ear to the winding of a bean vine as it springs from the earth. Evidence of labyrinths has been found in Minoan Crete as well as Europe, India and the American Southwest, according to Hermann Kern’s “Through the Labyrinth: Designs and Meanings Over 5,000 Years” (Prestel, 2000), translated by Abigail Clay and edited by Robert Ferré, a labyrinth builder and teacher in St. Louis, and Jeff Saward, a British authority on labyrinths. Mr. Kern, a German historian who died in 1985, was probably the world’s foremost scholar on labyrinths.

Ms. White handed me this 260-page tome and a stack of other books before I left that day, stoked on hot tea and homemade cookies.

This ancient form has long been used for walking meditations in which those who enter shed the burdens of the world, or their fears, or even evil spirits.

“There are labyrinths in the mosaics of Pompeii,” said Ms. White, who has studied with Mr. Ferré in St. Louis, and walked many labyrinths in this country as well as Europe. “Fishermen had a great belief in labyrinths. They would walk the labyrinth before going to sea, to shed the evil spirits that sank their ships or made the weather bad.”

A labyrinth differs from a maze, which can have more than one entrance and many choices of paths that often dead-end if you take the wrong turn.

“With a labyrinth, you know you’re going to the center,” she said. “It’s unicursal: one path to the center and one path out.”

The two most familiar labyrinth types are the classical, or Cretan, form, which has 7 concentric paths around the center, and the medieval form, which has 11 circuits around the center, like the one at the Chartres cathedral in France.

The simpler Cretan form recalls the Greek legend of the Minotaur, half- man, half-bull, hidden in the labyrinth that Daedalus built for King Minos. When Theseus, the son of Aegeus, the king of Athens, killed the Minotaur, he found his way out by following the ball of thread that Ariadne, Minos’s daughter, gave him to unwind along the twisting path.

That journey into the unknown — and the return — occurs in many cultures.

“It is a very nice metaphor for life,” Ms. White said. “Because we really are on the same path, just at different times and different ways. But we’re really all there together.”

The spiraling path, wide enough for one, with room for another to pass, was made of wood chips, and lined with rough-hewn Pennsylvania bluestones. And it seemed at home there, among the fallen oak leaves and the rotted stumps of trees, full of beetles and worms that Ms. White leaves for the birds.

“I knew when I saw the property that there would be a labyrinth down there,” Ms. White said. “It was a natural amphitheater.” (Her first labyrinth was behind a town house — flat stones set into the lawn, so it could be mowed. Some labyrinths are carved in the sand on a beach, to be erased by the tide, while others, made of turf, have lasted for centuries.)

In the spring of 2005, Ms. White worked with a labyrinth designer, Michael Clarridge; her husband, John Lowery; and their son, Curtis Lowery, to set the circular space into the forest, with as little disturbance as possible. They cleared invasive species, like euonymus and barberry, and moved saplings of native redbud and spicebush.

They replanted the natives in another part of the woods to honor what grew here long before humans laid their paths. They left a soaring tulip poplar where it was, to be encountered in the middle of the path.

The whole labyrinth was no more than 30 feet in diameter. Walking that spiraling path, which turned back on itself several times — and turned me 180 degrees — before setting off in another direction, seems to switch the tracks in the brain. It’s like the shift when you swing into a waltz; you have to stop thinking and give in to the music, or you will miss a step and falter.

This labyrinth in the woods released my mind in other ways too. The sharp call of birds brought my head up to the sky, to watch their dark shapes flying over the black treetops. There wasn’t room in my head for anything else.

“When I’m worrying about something, this is the perfect space for quieting my thoughts and just being in the moment,” Ms. White said.

So now I followed behind her, in lovely silence. I had to put my arm around that poplar to keep my balance as I edged around it on the path. On the way back, I held it with my other arm, a kind of do-si-do with a tree. I don’t know if I felt its energy or not, but I certainly experienced how alive it was, and its singular place in the forest.

Walking meditations are different from sitting ones, in which you remain still, listening to your own breath. Here, the rhythm is in the feet and the arms. Some people dance down the spiral; children run it.

I can imagine what walking such a path could do for half an hour a day, every day for a year. I can imagine the tiny changes in lichen on a rock, droplets on a branch, buds on a twig.

Ms. White said she walked her first labyrinth, in Marblehead, Mass., with her best friend, who had received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

“It was in the snow, outside of a church, and the path was surrounded by herbs, like thyme and rosemary,” Ms. White said. “I had a long coat on, which kept brushing the herbs, and I remember the scent.”

And so, as winter arrives — and the planet tilts back toward the sun, bringing us closer to spring — I will be looking around my own farm for a place to build a labyrinth. It might just announce itself, on the brow of a hill, where you could gaze in all directions.

Tracing a Path

Labyrinths are easy to draw, find and research, as shown on the Labyrinth Society’s Web site (labyrinthsociety.org), a good source of information, both historical and practical. There are many labyrinths in New York City, including one in Battery Park, designed by Ariane Burgess, to commemorate those who died in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Other labyrinths may be found here.