Once upon a time, a volcano tipped onto its side. Millions of years later, quarries were dug within its ancient bowels and pieces of geological history were unearthed. As stone was left to settle, upturned from the depths of the earth, is it possible that an energy was lifted, creating a mystical place that has drawn people to these hills in search of a way to discover their own answers? For some, the twists and turns of the ancient landscape of Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve have created tranquil spots to leave their own mark in the form of concentric curves. The mysterious labyrinths found within the parks borders have become landmarks in their own right. While the history of labyrinths and their symbolism is varied and long, what became curious to me is their invaluable message in modern times. Often described incorrectly as a maze, the labyrinth is the antithesis of its more complicated counterpart. One way in and one way out; a singular course with only one direction. For me, during a time of confusion, change, and decisions, a quiet wander through their soothing turns on a foggy morning was a welcome moment of peace.
The heart of Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve is Round Top Volcano, a ten million year old peak that was shifted onto its side as the tectonic plates along our fault lines moved the hills over time. The park itself was once named “Round Top Regional Park”; it was one of the three original parks in the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) alongside Temescal and Tilden. It was later renamed Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve after Robert Sibley, the beloved second president of EBRPD. The combination of the upended volcano and the subsequent stone quarries that once existed in this section of the hills has created a cross section of sorts of the volcanic earth that has enabled intensive study of our California Coastal Range. The history of the labyrinths that now sit throughout the park is not quite as clear.
As I made my way out of the parking lot, I headed to the right of the visitor center on Round Top Road. A short stint up the hill and you can branch off to the right on Round Top Loop Trail. This section of the park, which sits close to the border of Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, remains wooded as you meander uphill. My first destination was the most widely known and largest of the labyrinths, known as the Mazzariello labyrinth.
As you continue uphill, the open landscape which Sibley is most known for comes into view just beyond the cattle gate you have to pass through. Once you step through the gate you continue to the top, and follow the trail to the left, where Round Top Loop Trail intersects with Volcanic Trail. As you wind around, cliff warning signs come into view, and I gathered that the primary quarry pit where the Mazzariello labyrinth sits was just beyond its edge.
The story of the Mazzariello Labyrinth is the one part of Sibley’s history with these concentric destinations that IS known. The largest within the park, the labyrinth was created in 1990 by Helena Mazzariello. A local sculptor and psychic based in Montclair at the time, Mazzariello created the labyrinth as a “gift to the world”, a place to enjoy nature and to participate in a walking mediation or prayer. She used to take weekly walks through the hills with her pet goats, and felt a connection with this spot tucked deep in the old quarry pit. Now based in Pinole, Mazzariello has been kind enough to tell me about her experience of creating it.
After an initial hike to the location to stow a shovel and bucket, she would later return when she had time after work to create the classical 7-circuit pattern. Using mud from a nearby vernal pond, she would carry buckets back and forth, careful to release the tiny frogs and red newts that called the pond home; her so called “magic ingredient”. She covered the mud lines in red carpenters chalk so they could be seen and traversed the hillsides to peer down to see if the lines were even. To celebrate its completion, Mazzariello gathered a handful of friends for a Spring Equinox gathering for the “first walking” of the labyrinth.
Top Left: Labyrinth during its creation / Top Right: Helena Mazzariello in 1990 on the day of the initial Spring Equinox gathering
Photos courtesy of Helena Mazzariello
Labryinth during its creation / Photo Courtesy of Helena Mazzariello
Helena Mazzariello and friends during the Spring Equinox gathering, 1990
Photo Courtesy of Helena Mazzariello
Mazzariello never expected the labyrinth to last almost three decades. She was surprised to still find it there when she returned just months after its completion. Deep into the rainy season, she returned to see if it had been washed away. When she arrived two men were also there, and they quietly worked together to gather and place rocks along its lines to prevent it from washing away. This annual repair is something that happens organically amongst the community each year. Due to its location between two steep hillsides, part of the labyrinth is submerged under water for at least a month during the winter season. New rocks are placed, sometimes by Mazzariello and other times by local labyrinth lovers or the hiker community. In a way, the labyrinth is now 3-dimensional, as 27 years of rocks stacked on top of the original pattern go deep into the earth.
Mazzariello enjoyed the anonymity that came with its creation in the beginning. No one knew who had built it, she loved that it was the mystical spot that some people thought was ancient in origin. It was after reading a newspaper article in which someone else claimed to have built it that she came clean and announced that it was her doing. It’s existence has been left undisturbed by park officials, and there is now signage that leads to it.
The symbolism of a labyrinth has a varied history, from a trap for the minotaur in Greek mythology, to a hard path to God in some religions. The circular pattern appears in many forms throughout the history of Native American, Egyptian, and European cultures. In modern day, a walk through a labyrinth has become, for some, an act of mindfulness. Mazzariello described it to me as “an act of walking that is a moving prayer.” You enter into the labyrinth with a question or request for clarity, and then walk the concentric pattern while staying in the present moment, calming the mind, to allow an answer to come forth. When you reach the center you may receive your answer, or as she would say, “your aha moment”. Some may chose to leave a small memento at the center in honor of the journey. However, to reach the center is only halfway through your journey; you then need to walk back out and carry your answer with you. How do you implement it into daily life?
What struck me during my walk was how I was able to slow my step; I have a naturally fast pace. I find that mazes heighten my anxiety, I don’t like to get lost and especially don’t like when I can’t see and anticipate turns. I contemplated my discomfort with the unknown direction of aspects of my own life; I am in the crux of a lot of change right now. It was eye-opening to make this connection; I found it peaceful to walk the twists and turns because I could see where I was going. Although it is fascinating how at one point you think you are close to the center, and then you find yourself turning and moving away from it. It was a curious metaphor for me; often answers are elusive. Just when you think you have found them, directions often change.
So while the history of this particular labyrinth is known, the few others scattered throughout Sibley are true mysteries. A smaller one sits on the hillside just above the one Mazzariello created, in its center a single pinecone. A couple more are found off Round Top Loop Trail. The second most prominent labyrinth is a heart-shaped version tucked in the depths of the second old quarry pit, near marker 5 on the self-guided tour of Sibley’s volcanic history.
Questions remain unanswered about the history of this unique labyrinth; it is assumed to be the second oldest in the park and its builder is unknown. The center is particularly interesting; it has been filled with rock stacks, and in one curious case, a precariously balanced rock. The symbolism behind stacking rocks, or the creation of cairns, is rich and varied in its own right. After I spent a bit of time in the windy center I continued back up and wandered the foggy hilltops of Sibley, coming across additional rock stacks.
I returned to my car after a quiet couple of hours feeling calm and contemplative. What I didn’t expect to feel a couple of weeks later was confused and conflicted. As I pulled together my thoughts and coupled them with details I had researched online, I spoke to a couple of different people within EBRPD. While in one conversation the existence of other labryinths within Sibley was shared with a tone of fascination and curiosity, in another I was asked to reconsider my decision to share my experience on my blog.
I have been told by EBRPD that “new labyrinths are not allowed and would be subject to removal”. I was told by one park official that the original one created by Helena Mazzariello is considered “grandfathered in”. While Helena did not seek permission prior to creating it, she did have a conversation with a park official after the fact in which she explained its purpose and assured the park that she would keep it free of debris; it was allowed to remain. All other labyrinths that were created in Sibley, as well as other parks under EBRPD’s stewardship, are illegal; although it is unclear to me whether or not they will be allowed to remain intact. EBRPD considers labyrinths to fall under their “public art policy” and therefore prior to their creation, the “artist” must complete the proper application process to acquire a permit.
It was explained to me that while individuals may create these labyrinths without ill will, the greater good of the parks is not being taken into account. Their existence impacts the experience of all park visitors; perhaps for some their mysterious nature may be unnerving. Unintended consequences may arise; the creation of bootleg trails leading to them could result in injury. Unnatural offerings are sometimes left behind; negative effects to the sensitive environment are of concern.
While I can understand the concern, I really struggle with how the situation should best be handled. To me, the concern over unsanctioned trails is valid and real. Yet what is being created is made with materials that are part of the landscape; stones. However, EBRPD told me they consider them “non-native structures”. If a child builds a fort within a park using tree branches found on the ground nearby is it wrong? They have created something to expand their imaginative spectrum, to play in. The creation of a labyrinth is an invitation for people to walk mindfully, to find peace and calm. In this day and age, to find balance in our mental state is invaluable. I find it hard to disagree with the existence of anything that is being created as an way to seek this.
It is a complex issue that has kept me thinking the past few days since these conversations were had. I will continue to think about it. I suppose if I need to reach an answer I know a spot where one might be found.
I would like to thank EBRPD and Helena Mazzariello for their generosity of time. Many questions went back and forth and I appreciate the help immensely.
You can learn more about Helena Mazzariello through her website: www.spiritinjoy.com
Helena, in conjunction with EBRPD, is hosting a guided walk to her labyrinth this Sunday, October 1st from 10:00am – 1:00pm. If you would like more information please visit here.
More information about the Mazzariello labyrinth can be found on the Friends of the Labyrinth website.
The three photos included above of the Mazzariello labyrinth in 1990 were used with permission, courtesy of Helena Mazzariello.
All other images are property of Adrienne Schell; do not use without permission.