Walking the walk

Nature Center labyrinth to offer green way to connect with earth, self

Marion Patterson (far left) walks with friends in the labyrinth at her home on Thursday, April 12, 2012, in Cedar Rapids
Marion Patterson (far left) walks with friends in the labyrinth at her home on Thursday, April 12, 2012, in Cedar Rapids. Patterson is working with staff and volunteers to create a labyrinth in the prairie at Indian Creek Nature Center. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

By Diana Nollen/The Gazette 

CEDAR RAPIDS — Marion Patterson walks a path to inner peace at her home along 30th Street Drive SE.

It’s a little oasis of contemplation and meditation laid out in grass she really didn’t want to mow. Now she mows a circular path rooted in mathematics, dating back to ancient Greece and Egypt and etched on cave walls in Europe and India.

 It’s where she goes to calm her spirit and connect with the earth.

 Her husband, Rich, is taking that contemplative concept and ecological aspects to one of the area’s most natural settings, Indian Creek Nature Center, 6665 Otis Rd. SE. The public is invited to have a stake in it, by helping to stake it out Sunday afternoon, April 22, 2012. Tasks range from measuring and marking to staking and planting.

 “This is the only labyrinth we’re aware of crafted into a native tallgrass prairie,” Rich Patterson, the nature center’s director, says.

 It’s called the Red Cedar River Labyrinth Project and will be measure about 60 feet by 120 feet, in an infinity circuit design, looking from above like two snail shells side by side.

“Ecologically, prairies like disturbance, and it’s kind of impractical to have a buffalo disturbing the prairie,” Marion Patterson says. “The labyrinth becomes a good way to disturb the prairie a little bit, and get people out there for a different reason, maybe people who wouldn’t come normally. Also it gives people an opportunity to connect with the earth. …

 “It is researched and documented that when people are exuberant they tend to want to get out in the wide spaces. When they are hurting, when they need healing, they want to go into the woods. By the time the prairie grasses grow up to be taller than you and I are, in August and September, it will be a very private experience.”

 Marion Patterson began walking labyrinths in the early ’90s, when they became popular in the United States. At home, her classical seven circuit labyrinth, about 80 feet in diameter, was designed with the help of a mathematician friend from New Jersey. It encircles an old magnolia tree and is lined with plants wild and deliberate, sculptures, a driftwood stump, a conch shell, geodes, two stone benches and a bell to announce a pilgrim’s entrance and exit.

 She says the nature center’s labyrinth has “a great stone” in the center, with wide, mowed paths. As the surrounding grasses grow, the setting will become more private, but it won’t become a maze. It will be close to the main trail so if people feel disoriented, they can quickly exit, she notes.

 Mazes and labyrinths are not one and the same.

 “Labyrinths and mazes are often confused, but they’re very different,” she says. “A maze is like your ‘Harry Potter,’ designed to confuse, with multiple entrances and exits and some of them, like in Harry Potter, get you.

“A labyrinth is a unicursal (singular) pathway to a center. It is designed to be a safe walk and designed for a pilgrim to consider different topics, arrive at the center, receive whatever message perhaps is there, or not, and then you follow the same pathway out and reunite with the world,” she says.

 “It is spiritual, not necessarily religious. They’re two different things, but they are compatible.”

 She began creating her labyrinth two years ago, and has opened it to others.

 “I invite them to come here whenever they have something to consider,” she says, but requests that people contact her first.

It’s a place of recovery, rescue, remembrance and rejoicing.

Neighborhood children love to hop over the stones, run into the middle and climb the old magnolia tree. he just asks them to respect the plants and not stray from the path. Their joyful noises prompted Patterson to call hers the Laughing Labyrinth.

 She also holds regular Solstice and Equinox walks and friends from her church and various groups have walked the meditative path.

 “Two came on a walking business meeting,” says Patterson, a retired teacher, active volunteer and Reiki master. “They discussed certain matters outside the labyrinth, rang the bell, and each walked in. Neither talked to each other, but they kinda talked to themselves, and then on the way out, they had a plan, which I thought was a very interesting take on the whole matter.”

A walk is generally done in silence. “But it does not have to be,” Patterson says, “and that, to me, is the beauty of a labyrinth. I believe in the intention, I believe in the general design, I believe in the purpose and then you let your heart take you where it is.”

 On a recent spring night, Patterson invited several friends from church and school to join her in the Laughing Labyrinth.

 Tracy McPartland of Cedar Rapids had heard about it, but hadn’t walked it before.

 “I can see that it would be a great way to solve problems, to just spend time with yourself thinking about things or trying to listen to yourself about something, because it’s peaceful and it’s rhythmic,” she says. “I liked it. I can see myself doing it again.”

 Mary Westermeyer of Cedar Rapids has walked it before and says she enjoys the peacefulness it accords, as well as the chance to be close to nature.

Labyrinths exist on every continent except Antarctica, she says. Patterson’s labyrinth is among at least six in the area, with others at Prairiewoods in Hiawatha, Regis Middle School, Unity Center and Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids, as well one on the south edge of Ely. A couple are large mats that can be rolled out indoors, but most have been created outdoors and change with the seasons.

 Activities in the works for the nature center’s labyrinth include summer walks, a tour of the local labyrinths and a weekend workshop in October. “Our society needs healing and labyrinths are a way for people to connect with themselves, with the earth and with the larger community,” Patterson says. “Labyrinths are a way people can heal themselves from within.”

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