Labyrinth invites students to contemplate sustainability

Nestled beside the administration building sits the Old Fellow’s rose garden. What once only housed a bunching of plants and plain pathways is now home to a new contemplative labyrinth. Boulders and stone, along with old Sioux quartzite building bricks, lay out the movable pathways along the garden.

David O’Hara, professor of philosophy, classics and environmental studies, walked through the garden’s winding route. His strides long, he came toward a large pile of stones.

“There’s something very satisfying about moving stone,” O’Hara said.

O’Hara said Carol Spillum, associate vice president for finance, recruited him to build the labyrinth.

He picked up a brick to feel the weight, estimating each brick to weigh around 20 pounds. A group of Augustana staff, including staff archaeologist Jason Kruse, vice president for finance and administration Shannan Nelson, Carol Spillum and Kyle Rosendale, helped transport the eight tons of stone from Brandon to campus for the labyrinth.

Spillum said various groups on campus expressed interest in a labyrinth.

“The idea of combining sustainability for the garden, while at the same time gaining a labyrinth, seemed to make sense,” Spillum said.

O’Hara, junior Elizabeth Yoder and senior Mollie Varpness set the stones in a way that stays true to a traditional prayer labyrinth.

“A prayer labyrinth is intended to make it impossible for you to get lost. There are no wrong turns. As long as you keep moving, you will leave,” O’Hara said.

O’Hara pointed out the center of the labyrinth. The small circle, created by red bricks, sits three feet wide. His feet quickly followed the spiral which arrived upon a middle stone.

“It’s good exercise,” O’Hara said. “And it’s creative.”

O’Hara stood with one foot at the edge of the main circle. He kicked his leg to stand on the next line of stone.

“Three feet across,” O’Hara said.

He repositioned himself at the second row and kicked out again. Another three feet. Then again, and again, until he reached the outside line of quartzite. The whole garden is based on concentric circles of three feet, an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance.

“We’re making sure that it’s accessible, that it’s for everybody, and that everybody feels welcome,” Yoder said.

Yoder and Varpness said the purpose was to start the labyrinth, but other students and faculty should move the stones.

“My favorite part about the labyrinth is that it’s movable, which means that it can constantly change to suit the walking journey of students” Varpness said. “It seems metaphorically beautiful.”

O’Hara walked a few curves, picking up a stone or two and moving it to create a new pathway.

“It’s like playing with legos, except for adults. The landscape itself becomes a place of destressing,” O’Hara said.

He set his last stone down and pointed across the campus to tree groves and the commons garden.

“Those places are places people can lose stress, simply by being in nature, but a labyrinth is a way of intentionally being in nature for a short period without getting lost,” O’Hara said.

O’Hara walked toward the chapel. He pointed out trees he wished could be trimmed down to let more light in. From his back pocket, he pulled out a small red journal bending at the sides; yellowing pages were filled with scribbled notes and sketches.

O’Hara stopped at one sketch, orienting the journal to where he said he hoped the design would take place. He described a set of composting benches which could consume fallen leaves and grass clippings. The benches sat around a fireplace to create a classroom and gathering place.

He looked back towards the labyrinth for a moment.

“If it helps to serve other people and helps to connect them with nature, to connect with their spirituality and to foster mental health, I’m happy to build it,” O’Hara said.

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