Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I've been interested in labyrinths ever since I had the job to staff an array of three of them at the Synod Youth Workshop years and years ago.

A brief description of a labyrinth for those new to the idea is that it's a path.  Just a path.  You can't get lost.  The path leads you into the center then back out again.  What you do with the path is your own business.

Most people find themselves in prayer or meditation while they walk.  It has a way of freeing your mind to let it wander around a bit while the path tells you where to put your feet. You don't have to think about where you're going and it's a good way to let your mind rest.  If you are looking for a labyrinth it's likely you'll find it at a church, hospital or retreat center.  The most notable one is the beautiful one on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in Chartes, France.

At Synod Youth Workshop we used canvas labyrinths.  The pattern was painted on the canvas.  You unfold it and lay it out, take your shoes off, and get to walking.  Then pack it back up for storage. Canvas labs are very portable and perfect for indoor events.  The only problem is they cost a fortune.  Just a kit to make your own starts at $2,000.   I set out to figure out how to make an affordable one.

My first one I made out of rope. This required about 500 feet of rope for one with an 18 inch path.  But you can make them even larger if you have enough room. I made one in my field and then took the show on the road to various retreats. This required a storage chest for all that rope. I also ran into trouble when I tried to mow over it and got about a hundred feet of rope caught in the axle and Beaven had to take the mower apart to fix it. That was a day I don't ever want to repeat.

A month or so back I started toying with painting labyrinths on grass and that seems to be a pretty good solution.  It solved the mowing problem and I didn't have to deal with all that rope.  The rain doesn't hurt it.  However, because it hasn't rained much around here lately the grass hasn't needed mowing. I don't really know how much mowing hurts the pattern--since mowing basically removes what you painted.  I'm counting on those low ground-hugging blades of grass to hold the design and all I will have to do post-mowing is touch it up. 

I worked on it for most of the day yesterday. And in case anyone wonders if summer has arrived yet I can say with authority that it has.  It was hot and sunny and miserable. Try to get some people to help you.  It's a lot more fun and easier that way.

Here's some instructions:

The first thing you want to do is figure out where you'll put it. You'll need a large area (an eleven circuit lab with 2 ft paths will need about 50 feet of space.) that has good grass.  I've become somewhat of a connoisseur of grass since I started using it as a canvas.  You want more grass than dirt.  The paint doesn't do well on dirt.  And you want either very thick turf or broad leafed grass like St Augustine.  But then if you have a huge area of St Augustine you are probably going to get into trouble if you paint on it. You will certainly need permission and might have trouble getting it. Anyone with a large area of St Augustine had spent a lot of money on it so you'd better be careful before you paint it.

I have been blessed by the benefit of a windy day when our neighbor had their pasture seeded.  So I have pretty decent field of coastal bermuda across the fence from his pasture.  It's also a kind of secluded area with trees on three sides and the Berger's pasture on the fourth.  While I was working today their horses came to the fence to investigate. A very serene spot.

May 30th update:
The grass has grown more and is thicker now.  I've mowed the original path a couple of times now and enough paint remains each time to help guide me when I "refresh" the pattern with more paint.  It takes about another five cans to do the whole lab once it's been painted the first time.  At 96 cents a can that's not a killer expense as much as hard on your back. It is very do-able. 
Go to Walmart and buy the cheapest spray paint you can find.  I usually pay 96 cents a can at my Walmart.  Get 10 cans of white and one can of either green or brown (for erasing mistakes.)  I was a little surprised that I was never asked any questions about what I was planning to do with ten cans of spray paint.

Then buy a couple of the trigger attachments for spray paint.  If Walmart doesn't have them check Lowes.  They're about $6 and worth every penny.  Don't even try this without one.  Then hunt up 3 tent stakes.  And a little over 100 ft of cotton rope.  Cut them into 28 ft lengths for a 2 ft path. Most labyrinths have an 18 inch path.  I like a wide path because I've noticed that I've started to stagger a bit when I walk and my balance isn't what it used to be.  Plus I have so much space that it's nice that I don't have to limit myself.

Take each one of the 4 ropes and tie a loose knot at one end. This is the end that will be staked in the ground at the knot.  Take the green or brown paint and, starting at the knot,  mark hash marks on the rope every 24 inches. You should end up with 13 marks.

Find the center of where you'll put your lab.  Lay the four ropes at positions I call North, South, East and West.  No matter what the real direction I use South as the entrance.  Maybe these directions meant something to the Druids but I'm not a Druid and neither are you.  Please don't obsess over where the real north is.  Just make your entrance the south end of the picture.

Take the following diagram and blow it up as big as you can on a regular size paper.

Put down a tent stake at the center of the labyrinth.  attach the 4 ropes to the center and bring them out to mark the 4 directions.   Make the first circle using the second hash mark giving the circle a 4 ft radius. Then make a circle with each hash mark.  The North, East and West quadrants should be marked this way:  Pay attention to the lines that will continue through the axis and which ones will stop short for turnarounds.  It's a lot easier to leave bare grass than it is to erase the paint.

While you are painting the lines you'll need a way to keep track of them.  I took a stick of 1X3 wood and cut it into squares.  Then numbered each one up to 12.  By putting these on the grass I can easily identify which line is which.  The wood is heavy enough that it won't blow away and the numbers big enough I can read them from a distance.

Start with the North, East and West sections and paint the turnarounds according to the diagram:

The hardest quadrant to mark is the south end.  This one is the hardest because the lines just go willy-nilly.  Keep one rope at the center stake.  Then plant a tent stake one path's width to the left and one to the right.  Attach two of the ropes and bring them toward the south to form lanes.

Using the ropes paint the turns on the south quadrant.  Here's a diagram of the line numbers on the south.

I have a lot of trouble with keeping track of these lines.  And I have a huge problem replicating shapes.  Seriously.  I got tested once. And the tests showed that while  I am a genius at some things my "design memory" is just pitiful. Neither Beaven nor I have any skills whatsoever at Geometry or reproducing shapes.

I have struggled enough in the past that I've finally learned what to do when  when I get to this stage:   I enlist someone to help me then I sit down and shut up.  I give them an enlarged diagram of what the thing is supposed to look like, a big glass of iced tea and my undying respect.

I had one happy discovery as the weeks went on.  Mowing doesn't totally remove the pattern.  You still need to touch it up.  Here's a shot of my granddaughter spraying a fresh coat of paint.  Everytime you add paint the pattern looks better.

Two weeks later:  I found out the thicker the grass the better the pattern shows.  Here's a shot of Essie standing in the center:

And here is a shot of the burro in the neighbor's field.  She let Essie pet her more than anyone.  It's fun to have them for company when I walk.

This is just a start.  I'll try to update you with what works and what doesn't. How much difference mowing and growing makes. I'm still learning how to do this.
 If you want to get further into labyrinths the best book I've found on how to build them is Exploring the Labyrinth by Melissa Gayle West.

If you want a good labyrinth and don't want to drive out to my house I understand there's a dandy one in Dallas at the Church of the Transfiguration and one at Baylor Hospital.