Past the purple house and down the hill, over the gravel bridge and across the shallow, swampy gully there is a flat space. A pair of apple trees mark the passageway to a winding, circular path outlined by rocks laid out in the middle of the small, green field. It’s not a fairy ring or some other magical creation; it is the work of one man and the dream of one woman.
“About two weeks after my son Dustin died, the word popped into my consciousness,” explains author and bookseller Sheree Fitch. “It was in the middle of the night and it wasn’t even a thought. It was just ‘labyrinth!’”
Fitch had been introduced to the practice of walking the labyrinth while living in Washington, DC. She worked at the Washington National Cathedral which rolls out a huge 11-circuit labyrinth printed on cloth every Tuesday evening. When she and her husband, Gilles Plante, moved to River John in 2010, Fitch forgot about labyrinths until that night in March of 2018.
“I realized we could build a memorial labyrinth to Dustin. First of all, I loved the practice of labyrinth walking; it was very soothing to me. Secondly, Dustin was a landscaper, and I wanted something very simple for him: earth and rocks.”
The right spot existed on the couple’s 99-acre property along the River John River (the same property where Mabel Murple’s Book Shoppe is located). By the end of last summer, Plante had built a five-circuit labyrinth using rock the couple picked out at the quarry in Wallace.
According to the website, labyrinthsociety.org, a labyrinth is a meandering, circular path leading to a centre. Labyrinths date back more than 4,000 years and their most common purpose is to provide a space for a walking meditation. The most famous labyrinth is the 11-circuit one set into the ancient stones inside the cathedral at Chartres, France. A circuit is a path; an 11-circuit labyrinth is made up of 11 paths within 12 concentric circles leading to the centre.
Known as a contemplative practice, a labyrinth has a way of turning any space into a sacred, meaningful space.
Adrian Martinkiw was first introduced to a labyrinth while living in Vancouver, when he came across a labyrinth painted on the parking lot of a church. After moving to another part of the city, he discovered a rock labyrinth and began studying how they are made. He started to make his own, using sidewalk chalk on concrete because “it took off the pressure because it rains every day in Vancouver so if I got it wrong, I knew the rain would wash it away.”
After spending an entire night building a stone labyrinth in a public park, only to have the city send in a truck and bulldozer the very next day to remove it, Martinkiw learned a lesson about sacred space he carries with him to this day: “It impressed upon me that, since I have the pattern memorized, there is an opportunity to build these out whatever materials I want in whatever space I want, and turn that space into something significant.”
He has created labyrinths out of dead grass, bricks, sand, and flagging tape.
After moving to Nova Scotia nine years ago and buying a house and a woodlot in West New Annan, south of Tatamagouche, he now works as a forest technician and continues his practice of creating temporary labyrinths whenever he feels drawn to a space.
Along Route 6 in Linden, Alice Dionne has been walking a seven-circuit labyrinth in her rural backyard for over 15 years. She used ballpark lime and her own two feet to create the circular path.
“I just walked it almost every day that summer and because it rained so much, it killed all the grass,” she says. “I walk it whenever something bothers me, but my husband Joe is more faithful about maintaining it than I’ve been walking it.”
Like Martinkiw, Dionne practiced drawing the labyrinth (on paper) before laying it out on the ground. It starts with a simple cross in the centre, a right angle in each quadrant and a dot in each outer corner. From there, concentric circles are drawn linking lines and dots (labyrinths can be drawn clockwise or counter-clockwise). The more right angles, the more circles.
Over the years, Dionne and her best friend, Wanda, have drawn labyrinths in different sizes in many places, including the beach where the tide always washes it away.
Whether the labyrinth is temporary or permanent, both Martinkiw and Fitch emphasize that the practice of contemplative walking requires minimal explanation.
“Let your feet do the walking and don’t try and figure it out,” Martinkiw advises. “It will have its own effect on you.”
Fitch plans on offering the labyrinth to those visiting her book shoppe but she is clear that it is not a game or a maze. “The labyrinth is way over there so my hope is people who need it will find it,” she says.
How NOT To Be Self-Conscious Walking a Labyrinth
The Tatamagouche Centre offers an 11-circuit laybrinth modelled after the one in the Chartres Cathedral in France. It can take at least thirty minutes to walk it.
According to Josie Baker, the centre’s Executive Director, both the centre and the labyrinth sit on ground that is sacred to the centre and to the Mi’kmaw people so “the practice of walking the labyrinth outdoors, and on our land, provides an entry point to conversation with the land,” she says.
Baker emphasizes there is no wrong way to walk a labyrinth. “On a surface level, all you’re doing is walking. But it’s helpful to have some kind of focus, whether it’s a short song-like chant or a piece of scripture to provide thoughtful guidance. It will keep your mind from doing other things as you’re walking.”
You also can choose a question or a problem to focus on during your walk.
“Also, be willing to forgive yourself when you realize you’ve spent part of your walk thinking about something else,” Baker adds. “It’s about the journey, not the destination. Walk with an open heart and use the labyrinth as a meditative tool.”