A Winding Path

Why a Bay Area microbiologist turned to the New Age art of building labyrinths -- by hand, out of dirt

From the air, it looks as if a giant, heavy hand reached down and touched this spot, leaving a set of fingerprints in deep, grass-covered grooves of earth. On the ground, it's impossible to see that the circular forms make a straight line; each one is obscured from the others by the rolling contours of the Sierra Nevadas. Standing at the head of the path, the structure resembles a turf maze -- a winding, unbranching path that twists between two earth walls to a small open space in the center.

Dr. Alex Champion stands at the beginning of one of the labyrinths he has built. Before he takes the first step, he pauses a second, murmurs something under his breath, and dangles a pink crystal from the end of a silver chain. The semiprecious pendulum -- a carnival trinket to most eyes -- hangs still, then starts swinging around in a slow clockwise circle. Champion nods, puts the charm into the breast pocket of his maroon flannel shirt, and enters the turf-walled walkway, his boots carrying his sturdy frame forward in a swift, even stride.

Champion, 62, was once a microbiologist, and is now one of the most recognized names on the shortlist of modern labyrinth builders in the world. He dug this structure himself, with just a shovel, two decades ago, but the design -- a seven-ring-style labyrinth named after the Greek island of Crete -- is ancient. These patterns have appeared through the ages in art, architecture, literature, myth, and religion; this particular one represents the labyrinth at its most primitive. The spiraling form appears in etchings and artifacts of cultures around the globe -- from native North Americans to the indigenous peoples of Scandinavia. The shape appears everywhere to Champion -- in knotted wood grains and constellations, in cloud formations and DNA. And it appears here, a few hundred yards from the front steps of his home in the hills above the Anderson Valley near Philo, its waist-high walls made from a few hundred thousand pounds of dirt, the whole structure a few hundred feet wide.

The seven-ring Cretan labyrinth.
James Sanders
The seven-ring Cretan labyrinth.
Dr. Alex Champion.
James Sanders
Dr. Alex Champion.

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Champion's "earthworks," as he calls them, are most easily understood as enormous, interactive turf sculptures. Most of them fit the traditional definition of a labyrinth: a single path that winds from the entrance to the center. Unlike a maze -- which obscures the route from Point A to Point B through confusing choices (like the hedge maze at the end of The Shining) -- a labyrinth is made from one lane that you follow to the center and then retread to the beginning. Though the exact purpose of ancient labyrinths is unknown, today people walk them for religious or spiritual meditation, creative stimulation, and stress relief. In Champion's signature labyrinths, the trail is formed between grassy mounds about 4 feet high. The Cretan design that he walks today is a sentimental favorite -- and one that he believes holds mystical, sacred power.

Champion walks the path at least once every day, usually with his wife, Joan, to meditate and exercise, pray and plan. His life has taken him from the quantifiable pursuits of science, calculated under a microscope, to ones with more metaphysical goals. His current project is his biggest yet: a series of public art projects that will span the United States at the 39th latitude, with the aim of inspiring an extensive cultural awakening though labyrinth walking. Champion has earned a reputation among the rapidly growing society of enthusiasts as the "grandfather of the labyrinth movement" in the States; he has built 40 such structures in the Bay Area, two within San Francisco. In a field in which eccentricity is nearly a prerequisite, he is an eccentric among eccentrics. "He doesn't march to the beat of his own drummer," says Gael Hancock, board member and public relations chairman of the 800-member international Labyrinth Society. "Alex doesn't even hear a drummer."

When Champion approaches the first turn, he slows a bit. "Now see, here," he says, reaching to the top of his head, where his youthful dark brown hair stands in haphazard disarray. "I'm starting to feel something." Often when he walks a labyrinth he feels nothing special; the walk is just a tool for meditation. But sometimes the stroll brings Champion to the outer reaches of metaphysical rapture: He'll be overwhelmed by the sensation of energy from the earth or local spirits, or he'll have visions.

"A labyrinth experience happens when you don't expect it to," Champion says. "Those are the nature of labyrinth experiences. Those are what people keep coming back to."

Though Champion will concede that he is into "some pretty esoteric stuff," he comes across more as a cheery, chubby retiree than a New Age mystic. He wears jeans and work boots, flannel shirts and a gray stocking cap. He enjoys The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the occasional Bombay Sapphire martini, the San Francisco 49ers, a good meal followed by black coffee, and pointing his white Toyota mini-pickup toward Ukiah for a movie every once in a while. He refers to himself as "independently lower middle class," in part for comic effect, and laughs hard and loud at his own jokes.

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