Notes from a Pilgrim’s Year of Labyrinths

Teri P. is an articulate, sensitive pilgrim of Labyrinths.  Below Teri shares insights from a year of walking labyrinths in the Eastern Iowa area.

“First time in the labyrinth: Maundy Thursday April 17, 2014

“(Christ) Episcopal Church – Replica of the Chartres Labyrinth. Eight people there. I felt like people were walking fast. Faster than I wanted to. I tried to do the walking meditation as I was taught, but I felt pressured to keep moving. I walked with one foot ahead of the other. Reminded me of walking on the balance beam as a kid. Made me think of Dad. Marion said gymnastics must be where I got my good posture. No other impressions except calm.

“Regis Labyrinth:  Saturday April 19, 2014- after a run.

“This labyrinth was a tribute to a beloved teacher. Stones along the path are engraved with inspirational words, “Patience”  “Courage”  “Pray”.  At the center is John 14:6.  Situated on the hill behind the school gives the labyrinth a restful feeling of solitude. I think I shall call it my” local”, like you do with a pub. Just a few blocks from my house.

“Solon Labyrinth: May Day 2014

“There was a cold rainy drizzle. When you drive onto the property you see a large round barn. Very cool.

“But around the back of the barn it gets even better. This massive stone arch is perched on the bank of a pond. It was laid up dry, by someone who understood the principle. I made Marion take a picture of me standing under it. As I walked the circuits I began thinking, “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams….” At the center I moved from one rose petal to the next and wondered where this energy came from and where it would take me. I don’t completely understand, but I seem to feel lighter each time.

Prairiewoods, World Labyrinth  Day : May 3, 2014

“Marion tried to organize a walk, but she and I were the only ones to show up. Marion knows all the bird calls and frog sounds and any other sounds along the path to the labyrinth. When we arrived there were four young women there. Two inside the labyrinth, two outside. We watched the two young woman as they walked. One carried a stick and wrote in the sandy surface of the circuits. Marion measured the energy in the labyrinth – the dowsing rod circled 18 times – clockwise. I walked with two turkey feathers. Tail for guidance, wing for strength, according to Marion. The girls left and a deer showed up to watch. Deer totem means you are highly sensitive and have strong intuition in Native American culture – according to Linda. (When mom died and deer would show up at unexpected spots she started saying Mom sent them to tell us everything was good.)

Indian Creek Nature Center: August 1, 2014

 “Hot, buggy, beautiful sunset. I think we started at 7:00p.m. The prairie grass completely hides the labyrinth from the road. The path is mowed among the wild flowers. Not sure how many people there were. Eight? The path was wide enough to pass people so I did not feel I had to hurry. I set my intention. Not to worry. Things at work were getting to me. I carried a feather and tried to feel my way. I tried to smell and touch and listen – more than I saw.  Some of the flowers you could smell easily – I only knew the obvious ones. When I got to the center I started thinking about being in a vortex, wondering why the path was the same in and out, and how winding a wire is part of a battery, isn’t it? I walked out feeling happy – while in the labyrinth I did not think about work at all.

Laughing Labyrinth:  Nov 1, 2014

 “The labyrinth is open for walking. I arrive around 8:00 a.m. No one is there. I park my car, take a feather, ring the bell and announce my intention. “Help me with my grief.” Is that an acceptable intention? I still don’t know a lot about this. It has been two years since Dad died and I still miss him a lot. I try to be present. I look at what remains of the flowers. I smile at the metal dragon fly that looks very much like the one in my yard. I wonder what the magnolia tree looked like in the spring. I take my time. I stay in the center for a while, knowing that Marion told me that resolution does not always come while you are here, sometimes it happens on the way out, sometimes days later. So I make my way out, redeposit my feather and am ready to meet the day.”

Clearing the Path While Creating a New Habit(at)

Clambering over the fallen branches of the cleared understory saplings, I realized I was pushing my way through a metaphor.

Recently, a dynamic work party gathered at Sand Ridge to access Faulkes Woods and begin rehabilitation of the diverse ecosystems that had inspired the dedication of this lovely preserve.

Soon after the 1998 dedication, Faulkes Woods Forest began to show degradation from previous years of little maintenance. Garlic mustard took over the ground cover. Barberry seeds, spread by birds, quickly colonized in huge inaccessible patches, crowding out all other vegetation. Shade-loving maples – some native, some European – prevented sun loving oak and hickory nuts from rooting. Food for wildlife became scarcer as quality habitat declined.

The prolific deer and turkey populations foraged in neighboring yards and gardens more frequently. Woodpeckers, finding the dying and dead trees just right for their food and shelter needs, had increased. Yet, other birds, such as the Ovenbird, that are typically found in large timber tracts seemed to have disappeared. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology under Habitat “Ovenbirds breed in large, mature broadleaf or mixed forests from the Mid-Atlantic states to northeastern British Columbia. They set up summer territories where the leaf canopy overhead inhibits underbrush and provides deep leaf litter hosting plenty of invertebrates.” This excerpt can explain why they are not around. Too much undesirable understory has prevented native plants from growing and leaf litter is practically non-existent. Erosion has increased.

The clearing out “work party” left the forest floor in shambles. At least that would be the first impression. Piles of barberry littered the bare forest floor. But, the rest of the area was free from large patches of impenetrable brush. The felled saplings were another story. Not only were they tough to climb over and push through, but also, they blocked the trail. So, newcomers to the forest could not tell if they were on the right path back to the house for lunch. Thank goodness for the bright orange marker tapes that the leaders had tied to trees along the way to point the way!

And, that is not all. This project has been in development for a number of months. Leadership centered on a core of reliable professionals from the City of Marion, Trees Forever, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and Winding Pathways. Each knew his/her role. Everyone contributed positively. Volunteers, some experienced and some new to the efforts of ecological restoration, followed the lead of the crew chiefs. The project was successful because everyone made it so. And, deferred to experienced leaders.

All this hit me as I navigated the timbered jackstraw.

In short, a steady, decades-long and then rapid decline in quality with a huge mess to clean up.

So, the metaphor that popped into my mind as my way opened and the house loomed high on the ridge before me – still uphill – was, “This is a lot like church.”

Lacking regular attention to details over decades – finances, maintenance, staff and communications – and without a person truly “in charge” as a CEO by whatever name one gives this position, a church congregation can find itself overwhelmed by “garlic mustard, barberry, and invasive understory.” At a certain point a major “clearing out” needs to happen. But, it is messy, has far ranging consequences, hurts many people directly and indirectly involved, drives off productive families and may not be successful if it is only a superficial or “one time effort.”

The cultivation of steady maintenance and care of the physical plant, to social interactions, to nurturing of the tenets and principles to which a congregation espouses and spiritual development is necessary. Both professionals and volunteers need to participate. But, above all, someone must be in charge. And keep at it!

Finally, I pushed through the last of the maple branches and hiked up the trail to the house, washed up and prepared lunch for 27 wonderful volunteers and professionals who made a significant dent in stopping the woods’ degradation. Knowing that this was just the start of restoration, Rich has gone down periodically to trim back the branches from the fallen understory, the deer have eaten them back, the trail is open into the Woods and sunlight is beaming down onto the soil, warming it and the resting native ephemerals. The best part is that the Parks Department of Marion is very interested in the long term health of the Woods and that the sponsoring organizations’ leaders want to do more projects there.

The goals are clear and energy remains high. This is what restoration is about. May it be so in the church as well.