About three years ago while interviewing for the job as horticulture teacher at Green Chimneys, farm and wildlife director Michael Kaufmann and I meandered through the garden getting to know one another, sharing ideas and experiences. There was one area of the garden that just didn’t seem to fit with the rest. It was a large rectangle of space, approximately 30′ x 40′, and it was covered in large, sharp edged gravel. Sitting upon the stone, like relics from a cement factory long forgotten, were giant squares of painted concrete, chipped and faded with lots of weeds growing out of the centers. “What do you think of this?” Michael wanted to know. He explained that the area was meant to accommodate persons in wheelchairs. The concrete planters seemed too high to me though, and the gravel too big and jagged for tires to comfortably move across. The vibe of the planters was more urban too and out of place with the rest of the bucolic surroundings of the garden and campus. Only an interviewee, I didn’t want to express any negative perceptions, so I answered something non-committal like, “It’s interesting.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Michael confessed that he wasn’t thrilled about the area and I was much relieved. We both laughed and he immediately asked me, “So, what would you do with this section?” Having just read something about labyrinths (but really knowing very little about them at the time), I confidently suggested we install our own labyrinth. He told me he liked the idea.
The following year, in the fall of 2013, we were awarded a grant from Macy’s to fund our labyrinth project. As I started to research labyrinths and their history, I began to understand just how much a labyrinth could add to our milieu. The use of labyrinths date back more than 4,000 years! Their spiraling layout mimics such wonders in nature as a snail’s shell, the way a fern uncurls or the amazing pattern found in the seeds of a sunflower head. All of these natural occurrences are related to a mathematical expression called Fibonacci’s sequence. The fact that there’s a pattern so deeply embedded in nature, and that humans have decoded it, links us to nature in ways we cannot easily grasp. It’s a feeling. And walking a labyrinth can be a form of meditation; a way to clear the static in our minds, allowing our inner voice to come to the surface so that we can hear it.
And so began Phase I. The fun part. It involved several high school boys and several sledgehammers. I can’t remember how many times Mr. Wilfredo, our farm maintenance worker extraordinaire, had to replace a split handle! To see the excitement in the boys’ faces as they would enter the garden, run to the shed for their tool of demolition (and safety goggles) was priceless. Those that were interested would make a line at a good distance and await their turn to unload some energy, some negative feelings or some frustration. It felt good to attack those re-bar reinforced monsters, that was obvious. There was also a real camaraderie that seemed to blossom from the different teams. Machismo mashed with a healthy dose of competition as each boy wanted to outdo the others.
One year later, all seven or eight “planters” were reduced to rubble. This may seem like a long time, but those blocks were beasts, and I only have a handful of students strong enough to successfully wield a sledgehammer against such a worthy opponent!
This past Thursday, I asked a few of my classes to help rake the newly cleared area. Like a Zen garden, we began to comb the dirt and pick out the last of the rocks and cement chips. The students (all elementary-aged on Thursdays), took to this task with more focus and dedication that I could have predicted. I had imagined spending maybe ten minutes raking, but my first class spent their entire 45 minute period raking the dry, compacted dirt and recovering rocks. (Several students asked to take a few rocks with them. Why not?) Their care in what they were doing really struck me, as inwardly I had hoped our tending to this space would begin to energize it, help us connect to the Earth via the labyrinth. It was as if subconsciously, the kids understood this too. Maybe sounds a little out there, but what can I say?
Friday brought us a group of motivated, energetic volunteers from the corporation Goldman Sachs. About 15 employees from the firm came to volunteer their time, as they do every year; ready to work and help us turn our newly cleared area into an inspiring, calming and sacred space. The result of their determination, commitment and great energy is awaiting anyone wanting to walk it; Phase II of the project is complete!
Phase III will be to plant the spaces within the pathways, or circuits. The plan is to grow herbs and flowers that can be used for holistic care purposes for the animals on our farm. Some of my students do not identify as gardeners, but really love particular (or all) animals on the farm. By growing that which we can use to improve the health of the horses, for instance, my students’ sense of curiosity can grow when realizing the connection between plants and animals.
Phase IV is still developing! This will include landscaping the perimeter of the labyrinth and creating four special vignettes, one in each corner. Such ideas as a water feature, a gazing ball, a magnifying post are running through my mind. Any ideas or suggestions are welcome! You can always leave your thoughts below, under Comments.
The realization of this project is so close! There has been a lot of planning, a lot of research and learning, and many visits to existing labyrinths to see what works and what doesn’t. As we complete Phases III and IV, I will post some photos and updates. So far, the kids really seem to be responding positively to the labyrinth, though right now it’s more energetic and inquisitive and less centering. But who can blame them? The labyrinth is a new and unusual addition to our garden. But as time passes and the labyrinth becomes a part of our vocabulary and shared experience, so too will it become a tool in our arsenal to help soothe and ground kids that have a harder time finding their center.