story by Catharine Lo
Last winter, I visited a faraway corner of Maui where a green bluff rises a few hundred feet out of the deep blue sea. It’s one of those places where civilization disappears, where the horizon is uninterrupted and an abundance of natural energy can refresh a weary soul. As I made my way toward the water, a peculiar configuration of white coral rocks sprawled out on the ground before me, occupying an area of about half a basketball court. Placed in eight concentric circles, the white rocks traced a spiral path on the well-trodden grass. A weathered cairn of lava rocks stood in the center. It looked like some kind of marble game for giants. Where did it come from? Who built it? What does it mean? A break in the outer ring suggested an entrance, an invitation.
What I’d happened upon was a man-made labyrinth. Not to be confused with mazes, which are puzzles with multiple forks and dead ends (like the massive one at Dole Plantation), a labyrinth has only one path, and it always leads to the center. Its spiral design, modeled on sacred geometry found in nature, has roots in ancient Greece. The oldest known labyrinth, found on a rock carving in Sardinia, dates from 2,500–2,000 BCE. The symbol was important enough to the Greeks that they minted it on coins. Millennia later, labyrinths were installed in the floors of medieval churches in Europe, establishing a link to Christianity. The oldest church labyrinth was found in a fourth-century basilica in Algeria. Modern-day labyrinths tend to be modeled after either the eleven-circuit design found on the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral or the seven-circuit Classical, or Cretan, design.
The labyrinth, while ancient, is relatively new to Hawai‘i. Of the fifteen or so around the state, the majority have been built within the last ten years, part of a broader revival of interest that seems to recur around the turns of the century. (There was a similar labyrinth renaissance beginning in the 1890s.) While several of the first labyrinths built here were associated with churches, you now find them also in parking lots, in backyards, in open fields, in unexpected places, in places heavy with mana. Many of the people who build them believe that labyrinths are magnets of cosmic energy.
“As a trained scientist, I have a hard time with mystic arts,” says Dr. Neal Pinckney, founder of Hawai‘i’s Healing Heart Foundation, an organization dedicated to preventing and reversing heart disease. Dr. Pinckney didn’t expect to build one of Hawai‘i’s early labyrinths. But his first experience at Grace Cathedral’s terrazzo stone labyrinth convinced the former psychotherapist that they may help open the door to non-ordinary experiences.
“It was 7:30 in the morning, a typical San Francisco day, chilly, and I was bundled up. This group of Chinese ladies who had been doing tai chi chattered away like crows, and I was annoyed because they were really loud. Just when I got to the center, this sunbeam came through the clouds and surrounded me with warmth. I’m not religious, but it was like God shining a light on me,” he says. “The Chinese ladies noticed it, and they instantly became quiet. They just all stared at me as I walked out of the labyrinth.”
Dr. Pinckney went on to create his own labyrinth out of concrete in his backyard by the ocean at Makaha in 1998. People from all over the world came to visit the 1,100-square-foot design that took him three months to paint by hand. He has since moved to a condo in Honolulu, and his creation is gone, but his memory of celebrating New Year’s Eve with fifty friends in a candlelit labyrinth remains.
Christie Wolf first learned about labyrinths from a book she bought at a garage sale. Wolf, a graphic artist-turned-plant specialist, remembers being intrigued by the purported power of this archetypal design. Years later, when she was considering how to landscape her undeveloped lot near Kea‘au on the Big Island, she kept envisioning some kind of circular arrangement. So she and her husband embarked on a four-month project to install a Chartres-style, eleven-circuit labyrinth.
Wolf began by drawing the design on graph paper, then marking it out with spray paint. She lined the path with wood chips, and laid out blocks of black cinder cut with precise “lunations,” cog-like serrations along the outermost circle that function as a calendar. When she completed the impressive 90-foot-diameter pattern, her husband joked, “Aren’t you afraid you’ve made a landing pad for spacecrafts?”
She lined the path with plants, adding a beautifying third dimension. Delicate orchids bow over the walkway, and around some turns, the spicy fragrance of snow-on-the-mountain poinsettias fills the walking space. Ti plants stand tall as you approach the center, which is encircled by Manila palms. In the labyrinth’s center is a small, round pond filled with water lettuce, floating ferns and lilies. Underneath swim little white fish known, appropriately, as labyrinth fish.
In the past eight years, hundreds of labyrinth-walkers, some seeking solace, have walked Wolf’s labyrinth. Asked if she still walks the ever-changing botanical path frequently, Christie laughs and replies, “Behind a lawnmower.” But she also continues to walk it for personal reasons. “Keep walking,” she advises. “Every time you do, it is different.”