Going around in circles in the garden

Labyrinths - which combine history, mythology, and reflection - make a comeback.

I'm all alone at the Alta Sierra Biblical Gardens near the northern California foothills community of Grass Valley.

The gurgling stream adds to a feeling of calm as I slowly follow a narrow, curving path lined with white stones. The goal is to reach the center of the design, but whenever it seems tantalizingly close, the path twists, and the center suddenly is farther away.

This is a labyrinth garden, a type of landscaping that is slowly making inroads into public and private gardens across the US.

Based upon a spiral design and usually having seven concentric rings (a pattern that goes back more than 3,200 years) labyrinths have been found in Iceland, Peru, Egypt, India, Europe, and North America.

Today they can be found in Canterbury, England; Pennsylvania; San Francisco; and France, among many other places.

Most people are familiar with labyrinths from Greek mythology. The fearsome Minotaur, with the head of a bull and body of a man, was confined in a labyrinth and feasted on the young people of Athens until slain by Theseus.

Hardly an image of serenity. But modern-day labyrinths - successors of fabled knot gardens - have gone in another direction entirely.

Today, some consider walking the circular paths to the center of of a labyrinth and back out again to be an aid to meditation. Others simply enjoy the intricate patterns.

Claire Collingwood, a California landscape designer, created one in her Sierra foothills yard about four years ago, after a friend told her how ancient cultures that had no direct contact with each other had separately developed their own forms of a labyrinth.

"I walked the one at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco," she says, "and was taken by the calm of walking a path of twists and turns, so I decided to build one in my front yard."

With the help of friends, who brought smooth river rocks to outline the pathways, the design - shaped more like the canopy of an oak tree than the usual concentric circles - was completed in a single day.

Her experience illustrates that there are no strict rules for creating a labyrinth, so a gardener can line the pathway with any suitable plants (rather than stones) they find attractive.

Ms. Collingwood found one private labyrinth garden near California's Stanford University that has a patio table and umbrella in its center, where the owner relaxes and studies.

Yet another she has seen has a pond with a fountain in its center, where the sound of splashing water adds to the labyrinth's feeling of serenity.

Another proponent of labyrinth gardens is Joey Garcia, who first saw one in 1991 in Ojai, Calif. "It was at an avocado farm where a woman held spiritual retreats at her home. The labyrinth was built atop a mountain and was just beautiful," she says.

Now Ms. Garcia has one in the backyard of her home in El Dorado Hills, east of Sacramento.

"I have a large yard, but the labyrinth takes up only a small corner, which shows that it's feasible for including in most backyard situations," she says.

"Mine is based on a Jewish mystical tradition, Cabbalah, which means you find God in every direction you travel. My labyrinth has no center, but as you turn each corner you recite, 'Every direction is God.' "

Initially, her design was constructed of decomposed granite and stones, but Garcia's interest in attracting butterflies and hummingbirds to the garden has led to the inclusion of planting areas.

Labyrinth gardens aren't necessarily taking America by storm, and you're not likely to see dozens of them portrayed on Martha Stewart's TV show anytime soon, but there is growing mainstream interest in the topic.

Unlike a maze, whose purpose is to get people lost, the single-path labyrinth leads those who walk it unerringly to its core - and back out again.

Perhaps because they're intrigued by the meditative purpose of it, the majority of people who use garden labyrinths prefer walking them slowly, deliberately, and barefoot.

If nothing else, their creation lends yet another facet to the feeling of peace that many people associate with gardening.

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