Friday, September 20, 2013

The Labyrinth Project, the beginning

Setting stone in the outer ring of the Labyrinth
The Labyrinth Project is an installation I am building in Hall's Hill Lookout Park, a beautiful site on Bainbridge Island in Washington State, due west of downtown Seattle.

In the fall of 2006 I was approached by a person, who helped spearhead the building of the Islandwood Environmental School on Bainbridge Island in Washington.  This is an amazing institution. It is hoped that every child enrolled in school in the Seattle region be able to go to Nature camp for one week at Islandwood, where they will be guided by graduate students in environmental education.  For many of the kids it is there first time in the woods.  I built a cistern there that collects the water from the Learning Center in 2007.  You can read an essay I wrote about it at:
The Cistern at Islandwood
They had seen the Council Ring that I built for Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones at their new garden at Windcliff on the Kitsap Peninsula.  The Council Ring is one of the most important projects I have built to date, in large part because it has symbolism and coloration that relate to the cosmos and the passage of time, and the sacred mountains of Tacoma and Sun-a-do, Mount Rainier and the Olympic Range.   The English captain John Meares, seeing the Olympics in 1778, thought they were beautiful enough to be the home of the Gods, and named the highest point Mt. Olympus after the mountain in Greece.  Mt. Olympus sits due West beyond the Eastern entrance to the Council Ring.  There are alignments with the Summer Solstice, which I marked as I was building it at that time.  The Giant Pacific Octopus design inside the ring points it's arms in the cardinal directions.  The surrounding colors of stone change with the colors of the seasons and the Native American Medicine Wheel.  Bald Eagles have landed on it.  It is a sanctuary linked to the solar system, the sea, and the surrounding land.  The Cistern at Islandwood has some of the same concepts.  Both projects required that I collect several tons of local beach rock.
The Council Ring at Windcliff
The site and gardens are stunning.  This park is meant to be a place of peaceful healing.  There is already beautiful boulder work and winding gravel paths that lead to a fabulous milled old growth cedar slab bridge that crosses a sedge and rush filled swale.

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Beyond this is a wonderful bronze prayer wheel, with a plaque explaining that you set an intention and spin the wheel 9 times.  A bell rings on the 9th rotation and your intention is sent out in to the World.  It is a popular destination for island residents and visitors.  On the Prayer Wheel is an inscription by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu.  It reads; "I have just three things to teach: Simplicity, Patience, Compassion".
The Community Prayer Wheel

The original labyrinth
A simple labyrinth had been installed by a local landscape company that is an extension of Savage Plants, a nursery on the Kitsap Peninsula.  Granite blocks were set in a lawn in a pretty glade in the forest with views of the water.

I've worked on a lot of projects in the last 25 or so years, and it has been very seldom that I have been asked to build something sacred.  I even had a client ask me in a sarcastic way when I finished her patio if she would have to meditate out there.  Heaven forbid.  But I happen to know that when you build intention in to a landscape playing on its connection to the natural world and the cosmic forces that influence it that it actually has a presence that could be considered sacred.  Animals are attracted by the energy these places emit.  I've had a Cougar, a Rattlesnake, a large banded lizard, a Great Blue Heron, and Bald Eagles visit the places where I've intended them to be magical.  As they are used over time for ritual and introspection they become loaded with memory and history that can trigger consciousness on a profound level.

Years ago I was approached by the TKF Foundation ( based in the Washington D.C. area to give a lecture on building sacred spaces.  TKF is known for installing Poetry Benches in troubled parts of the region, like Baltimore.  They also build labyrinths and gardens, sometimes in prisons.  After my presentation the architects in the audience and I focused our discussion on the ethical gathering of materials as a basis for creating sacred landscapes.  They were interested in having me build a labyrinth for them but there was no real idea of how laborious it would be to build a pebble mosaic labyrinth.   Eventually they asked me if I would do one in recycled asphalt on a roof top in Washington D.C.  It would be the first of its kind, for good reason.  I declined.

The most popular style of labyrinth within the organization seemed to be an 11 circuit path based on a Medieval walking labyrinth at the Chartes Cathedral in France, which was built in the 13th Century.  This has become the most famous and therefore the trendiest model.  There is a copy in the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco that is the most frequently walked in the world.

I've since walked a rustic 7 circuit labyrinth on a beach on Sauvies Island near Portland several times.  The paths are lined with beach stone.  The beach is clothing optional so I have always walked it naked.  I don't always get in to it on a deep level but its a sweet experience and I can feel a special energy from doing it.

My design for the labyrinth
It took three days for me to get organized to drive up to Bainbridge Island, a four hour drive to the north of Portland. I gathered tools, lots of buckets, packs of new gloves, rain gear, a shade structure in case it rains while I'm working, a pile of work clothes, and plenty of extra food.

I drove to Tacoma and crossed the Narrows to the Kitsap Peninsula, and stopped at a wide stone beach not far from the highway that is a great place to pick rock.  I've seen a few men fishing here over the years but that is all.  It is usually deserted and there are a lot of stones to pick through.  Because the wave action in Puget Sound isn't big like it is in the Pacific Ocean, the stones tend to keep some of the flat surface where they split, so that the corners are rounded and soft.  These can be a great shape to use in rock work.  The rectangular raised pond in my garden is built with Puget Sound beach rock.  It is some of the loveliest I've encountered in my travels.  Glaciers during the last ice age dragged a huge variety of stone in to its moraines and left them to line many of the beaches in the area.
Rock collecting on the beach in Purdy

When I arrived it was full tide, and the beach was small, so I rolled up my pants and took off my shoes and waded in, parting the seaweed to see what I was looking for.  Little waves soaked my pants and shirt sleeves and made for slow picking.  Silvery clouds rolled in making for a gorgeous sky I will remember whenever I think of the days I spent gathering stone for this project.  These stones are special.

Buckets of hand picked beach rock
I'm looking for particular shapes, with a flat top and 90 degree or more edges, and enough depth that they will stay in place and not become dislodged from the mortar I'm going to set them in.  I often put two stones together to see how they would fit.  Over a four hour period I gathered over 1000 pounds.  All these have to be carried by the bucket up a steep rough trail through a thicket of poison oak.  I gouged my shin on the burl of an Arbutus Madrone tree that had fallen across the path so now blood was running down my leg.  Penance.  My other penance is that I pick up trash and haul it away.  It is appalling how much trash washes up and is tossed on our shores.  When I am done collecting, nobody would ever know I was there.  If there are little crabs under a stone I put it back.  I wipe the tiny snails off so they can grab on to another rather than die in my buckets.  I consider it the gentlest form of resource extraction.

It was dark when I got to the island, but I stopped at the site, which has been prepared to my specifications in advance after my first visit.  At 36 feet in diameter, this is the largest mosaic I will have ever worked on.  8 granite boulders have been placed at the cardinal points outside of the 36 foot diameter circle, around which they installed a steel ring to keep me in line.  This is filled with perfectly compacted gravel.  The granite boulders are meant to be places to stand or sit and meditate on the whole of the design.  It is like a dream to have something so exactingly prepared for me in advance..

The beautifully prepared site where I will build the labyrinth

I unloaded the buckets of rock in the dark so I could get my luggage out of the back of my pickup, which is covered with a decaying old canopy.  I have to crawl in on my hands and knees to load and unload it.  How many thousands of times have I done that since I bought this '86 Toyota Pickup!

The following morning I hobbled out to the site and prepared to draw the design for the 11 circuit labyrinth.  It is no surprise that my measurements in the design were not accurate and the center circle will be considerably smaller than I originally thought but I love the way it looks.  I used a line connected to a spike in the center of the circle to draw the rings, and then laid out the cross lines that align with the cardinal directions where the paths will make their turns.  Then I drew in the bends to the path.  This was a lot of bending over to draw and my back is letting me know it hurts.  I walked the labyrinth in both directions to make sure it works and to see how it felt.  It is dauntingly long, and will take a great deal of time and stone to manifest, but it is going to be magnificent.
Spreading out the stone I collected in Purdy over the design etched in the compacted gravel
After that I had a great meeting with the people who are arranging everything for me.  It is wonderful to have whatever I need to proceed taken care of.  I often have to do everything myself, or arrange for everything to happen.  I wanted a copy of the plan laminated so I can use it in the rain...done.  I needed steel strips for forms.  They'll be there tomorrow.  There is a pallet of mortar and 20 lengths of rebar on site for when I am ready to start setting stone.  While I will push myself relentlessly, there doesn't seem to be pressure to finish the project this year.  We had a profound conversation about sacred design and what that can mean.  I'm so inspired to be doing this!
My project manager Gregory Glynn, the man that makes it all happen!
In the afternoon I drove out to White Pier Point to collect rock.  This is a narrow stone beach in a beautiful setting right next to the road with houses on the other side.  Men were fishing on the pier and everybody was in a good mood.  Silvery clouds reflected in the clear water.  The tide was high again but receded in the evening, so worked my way back and forth along the beach filling my buckets as more stone was exposed.  The rock on this beach is small to medium in size with a great mix of colors and shapes.    I got a good haul. collecting about half a ton which I delivered to the site at dusk.  There will be a great many trips to area beaches to gather what I will need to finish this project.
Collecting rock at White Pier Point Park
A beautifully colored dead crab amongst the stones on White Pier Point
I checked the tides the next morning and hit nearby Rockaway Beach at low tide.  This is a wide, obviously rocky beach that I am told was where stone ballast was unloaded from frigate ships that were loading up with lumber from Blakely Lumber Company, which at that time was the world's largest mill.  A number of ships were built here for the lumber trade.  I would imagine much of the ballast came from California.  The sizes tend to be larger than the beach I picked from yesterday, and I want large pieces to frame the paths.
Collecting rock on Rockaway Beach
The beach is lined with houses so I felt like I was picking from people's back yards but all the yards have stacks of collected rocks in them and the people I talked to didn't mind at all.  I picked another 1,000 pounds or so (12 full 5 gallon buckets), focusing on red, white, and black stones to improve my selection.  These larger stones make for marvelous habitat for shoreline creatures and I have to be careful not to disturb them.  I put the rocks back if they have limpets on them or are covering a swarm of tiny crabs.

A 20 foot and two 10 foot lengths of steel strips 4 inches wide were delivered and I used 12 inch coated steel nails as spikes to support the curve of the strip making a perfect form.  Then I made measurements for placing the 12 moons around the perimeter circle.  I have to decide if I will make white pebble mosaic disks, or trim white round stones.  The full Harvest Moon rose this evening over the water and was quite breathtaking.
Steel strips make a sturdy form for setting the mosaics
There are Pileated Woodpeckers in the surrounding forest and I am serenaded by their call throughout the day, which I love.  This is a link to a recording of these gorgeous birds:
Flocks of Canadian Geese fly over from time to time.  The sound of a Loon on the water is my favorite of all the bird calls.  Humans on the other hand mow lawns and weed whack to keep nature at bay.  Oh Humans.

After three days of gathering rock, about 3,000 pounds, I felt that I was ready to start setting stone.  A pallet of mortar had been delivered to the site and 200 feet of rebar.  I started by sitting on one of the 8 directional stones and doing the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra 18 times.  This is an ancient Hindu Sanskrit mantra that I learned with a group of friends when we would gather on the full moon and chant the mantra 108 times.  There is a description of what the mantra means at:

I then read the chapter in a book I've owned for many years called 'The Medicine Wheel', written by Sun Bear and Wabun (Prentice Hall Press).  This is a book of Native American astrology that I have used to develop my methods for incorporating Medicine Wheel ideas in to may mosaic work, mainly through orientation and the coloration of stones.  I was starting in the eastern direction near where the labyrinth will be entered, building the outer ring.  I am making 12 small white moon shaped mosaics and each moon represents a seasonal moon throughout the year.  The first moon I would be creating would be under the title of the 'Frogs return Moon'.  The animal totem for this moon is the Beaver.  I brought a few beaver chewed sticks that I gathered the week before from a beach I go to on the Columbia River in Oregon so I inserted one of these outside the circle at the point where the moon mosaic would be created.

Setting stones in mortar
Then I mixed two 80 pound bags of mortar in my wheel barrow, one at a time, and filled in a section of the form I had built the day before.  It was time to start placing stone.  I first set larger stones to frame the edge of the path and then made three flower shapes with green stones, leading up to the moon, which I made with white quartzite and granite pebbles.  Green is the color I use in the Eastern direction as it represents Spring, which is the greenest time of the year in the Pacific Northwest.  The animal that presides over the East in the Medicine Wheel is the Eagle.  While I was looking for the valve box to turn on the water so I could wash the salt off the stones and mix mortar, I found an Eagle feather in the bushes, an auspicious sign.  I placed this at the center of the labyrinth where a kind of altar is beginning to take shape.
An altar developing in the center of the labyrinth

The mineral of the 'Frogs return Moon' is Chrysocolla , related to turquoise.  This is a bluish stone related to turquoise.  I've only found one stone on the beach that may have this mineral in it and placed it in the mosaic near the moon design.   The plant totem for this moon is Camas, which has blue flowers and was an important food staple of native peoples.  You can read an essay I wrote about Camas at:

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As I made my way around towards the next moon cycle, the colors of the stones begin to take on shades of gold/green and orange.  The next moon that I set, about 12 feet from the first moon is the 'Corn Planting Moon'.  The deer is the totem animal of this moon.  Yarrow is the plant totem, and moss agate is the mineral.  I flanked this moon mosaic with two rust, yarrow colored flower bursts.  The day ended having completed about 16 feet of mosaic work.
The first day of setting stone in the outer ring
It seems to have been a productive day but when I climb up on the tallest stone in the perimeter for an overview it looks as if I have barely begun, which I have.

From above, it is clear that I have a very long way to go to complete this project

Up close it looks like a substantial amount of work!
The next day I built another 8 feet of mosaic, including the 'Strong Sun Moon' at the Southern Cardinal Point.  The colors of the stone have gone from golden to pink and red.  The totem animal for this moon is the Red-shafted Flicker, the most common of the woodpeckers in the west.  There is a well pecked dead Douglas Fir trunk about 12 feet away.  The mineral in this cycle is Carnelian, which when opaque is Jasper.  I believe that many of the reddest dense stones I have found on the beach are Jasper.  The moon's plant totem is a wild rose, of which there are many varieties.  I flanked the moon with two 5 petaled wild roses made of round red stones around a round gold center.  I've started to make these flowers, or starbursts when I hear the bell ring when somebody is turning the prayer wheel.
The Strong Sun Moon
A woman came down the path today seeming to be in a serious hurry to get to the prayer wheel and hustled past without looking at this huge undertaking to her right.  I heard the bell ring and less than a minute later a car sped off.  I dedicated the roses to her.  Most people stop to see what is going on and I'll explain the ideas behind some of what I am building.  Some of them get the most blissed out looks on their faces.  Sometimes I take their picture.
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It started to rain this evening and I set up the frame for a pentagonal shelter that I take to Burning Man every year.  I hope it keeps me dry.  I've run out of good red and purple stones but the tide was very high this evening and the beach was completely submerged.  I would be nervous if I lived in one of these homes.  Sea levels are rising, right now, as we speak.  Fall is coming to the Pacific Northwest on Sunday, September 22, 2013, at 8:44 in the evening.  I am going to try and mosaic my way to that point this weekend, the Harvest Moon.

I focused the next day on finding enough red, purple, and brown to extend the outer ring to the western cardinal direction.  The Ripe Berries Moon is surrounded by red stones.  The mineral for this moon is Garnet and Iron, and the Sturgeon is it's animal totem.  Wild Raspberries are the symbolic plant for this time of year providing sweet sustenance to the peak of summer.
The Ripe Berries Moon
The stones now transition to Violet and Purple, encasing the Harvest Moon.  I have been fortunate to find a good selection of these unusual colors on Rockaway Beach.  Amethyst is the Harvest Moon's mineral, the Brown Bear it's animal, and the Violet it's flower.  It was a beautiful moon rising over the water earlier this week.
The Harvest Moon
On the first day of Autumn I worked past the Western cardinal point and the Ducks Fly Moon, which is the moon I was born under.  The color surrounding this moon is brown, and the paths will make a turn in both directions rather than connect in the outer ring, so I left the space open until I can build the forms for this.  I will make the Ducks Fly Moon when I come back in October, working up to my birthday.  Jasper is the mineral for this cycle.  The Raven is this Moon's animal totem and Mullein is the plant.  I always let a seedling or two of Mullein grow in a gap in the patio behind my house, which was the first mosaic I ever built.  And I have had some very interesting interactions with Raven's.  They  are very smart birds.

The following day I made the Freeze Up Moon, which is a point where a gravel path comes down the hill to the labyrinth.  The color of the stone around this moon is orange, and the mineral is Copper and Malachite.  A snake is the totem animal so I made one in orange stones although it is very subtle.  Thistle is this moon's plant.
The Freeze Up Moon
I had a pretty good selection of black and white stones gathered so I was able to do this section fairly efficiently.  I transitioned between the two with black speckled white granite and black stones with white veins of quartzite.  Black is the color surrounding the Long Snows Moon, and obsidian is the mineral here.  I have found very black dense stones on the beach that can attain a kind of polish due to their fine structure.  Obsidian is volcanic glass and these stones seem closely related.  The Elk is the totem animal and the Black Spruce the plant.
The Long Snows Moon
The Earth Renewal Moon is surrounded by white stone so I made it of the brightest white quartzite I gathered that morning and surrounded it with speckled granite so that it would read well.  This moon is located in front of the boulder on the North side of the labyrinth.  I used up the rest of the pallet of mortar here.
The Earth Renewal Moon resides on the North Cardinal Point of the Labyrinth

Just as I was adding the last stones to the wet bed of mortar a friendly man named Mike came down the path.  While talking he said he had brought his kids to the previous labyrinth for a walking meditation.  I told him I would make a flower for him if he rang the bell on the prayer wheel, so he went back and did that, and I made him a sweet little flower that I have named 'Mike's Flower'.  He came back and I showed it to him and told him to make a note of where it is so he would remember it when he walks the labyrinth.   This made us both very happy.
Mike stands by a beautiful grouping of stones on the north side of the labyrinth

Making Mike's flower

I packed up my things and went to Rockaway beach to continue collecting stone.  Gregory, who has been my liaison on this project met me there and took me to see the Rolling Bay Presbyterian Church's labyrinth across the island.  It is made out of red and gray concrete pavers.  We walked it at dusk.  It was nice not to have to carry buckets of rock.
The Rolling Bay Presbyterian Church Labyrinth on Bainbridge Island
The next morning was the last of my first installment on this project.  I gathered 4 buckets of stone from Rockaway Beach, looking for silver, bluish, and yellowish colored stones for the last three moons.

Three quarters of the outer ring are set
Then I drove the 4 1/2 hours back to Portland in time for a massage and four days of catching up at home.  It was a beautiful day and horizon was walled with huge billowy clouds illuminated by the sun.  It is supposed to pour rain all weekend.  It rained mostly at night and I was gifted pretty good weather for most of this first installment on the project.  The night before I left I wrote a  description to be printed for a sign to put up by the site.  It reads:

The Labyrinth Project

The layout of this labyrinth is based on the well known early 13th Century Chartes Cathedral Labyrinth near Paris.  It has 11 circuits that make turns at two cross axis oriented to the cardinal directions.  The diameter is 36 feet and the entrance is from the East, the direction of the rising sun.  It is made from hand collected rock from various beaches on Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula, set in to mortar.  8 of the granite boulders around the perimeter are set at the cardinal points. 

Counting the central ring, the number of circles is 12, which ties the labyrinth to the seasonal and lunar cycles.  12 is the sum of the Earth (4) times the Divine (3).  The seasons are represented here as colors, with 12 Moons  set in the outer ring.  A 13th ‘Blue Moon’ sits in the sun circle in the center, symbolizing lunar and solar eclipses.  This creates a native Medicine Wheel connecting the Earth, Nature, and the Moon.  

Each Moon in this labyrinth has a totem color, mineral, animal, plant, and spirit keeper.  
The moons, starting at the entrance and going clockwise:

Budding Trees Moon (3/21-4/19)  Yellow, Fire Opal, Red Hawk, Dandelion
Frogs Return Moon (4/20-5/20)  Blue, Chrysocolla, Beaver, Blue Camas
Corn Planting Moon (5/21-6/20)  Green, Moss Agate, Deer, Yarrow
Strong Sun Moon (6/21-7/22)  Pink, Carnelian Agate, Flicker, Wild Rose
Ripe Berries Moon (7/23-8/22)   Red, Garnet and Iron, Sturgeon, Raspberry
Harvest Moon (8/23-9/22)  Purple, Amethyst, Brown Bear, Violet
Ducks Fly Moon (9/23-10/23)  Brown, Jasper, Raven, Mullein 
Freeze Up Moon (10/24-11/21)  Orange, Copper and Malachite, Snake, Thistle
Long Snows Moon (11/22-12/21)  Black, Obsidian, Elk, Black Spruce
Earth Renewal Moon (12/22-1/19)  White, Quarz, Snow Goose, Birch
Rest and Cleansing Moon (1/20-2/18)  Silver, Otter, Quaking Aspen
Big Winds Moon (2/19-3/20)  Blue Green, Turquoise, Cougar, Plantain

I try to make a flower each time I hear the bell on the prayer wheel ring.  I hope to add 108 stones around the 10th circuit.  The 8 rings closest to the center represent the orbit of the known planets from Mercury to Pluto.  The permeable lines between the paths will be filled with crushed gravel and over time, moss and seedlings.

In walking this labyrinth, it is my hope that you will feel a change in yourself, to being one more connected with Nature in all its harmonious magnificence.  Leave your thoughts behind if you can, being here in the moment, and just feel the progression refilling your opened mind as you follow the circuits.  It is all about cycles, ebbing and flowing like the tides around this island being pulled by the moon.  Ideally you return via the same route you came in.  Step to the side if somebody needs to pass.  Doing it barefoot will add the bonus of foot reflexology.  Enjoy!

Jeffrey Bale
You can read more about this project at

I'll be posting additions to this story as they happen.  Thanks for reading, Jeffrey
A Moonbow over Seattle from Bainbridge Island