IN 1989, Alex Champion decided to trade in his test tubes for a shovel.
Though he was not exactly confronting a midlife crisis, Mr. Champion, a biochemist who is now 52 years old, decided that his work at Cutter Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., was not half as interesting as digging earth mazes.
"I was getting dissatisfied with the combination of being in a corporation and with science in general," Mr. Champion said in June, as he inspected one of his recent creations, an earth maze at Lakeside Park for Oakland's public art program. "Besides, I'm more a physical person than I am a mental person. I've always enjoyed working with my hands."
So with his lifelong affinity for gardening and with a new motto, "Have shovel, will travel," Mr. Champion left his job to establish himself as a professional earth-maze builder. And Mr. Champion, who calls his company Earth Mazes, says he knows of no one else who builds earth mazes professionally in the country.
Mr. Champion has built 11 earth mazes in California and Washington over the last five years, including two for himself (one, 60 feet in diameter on his Mendocino County land; the other, a rectangular baby maze in the yard of his Albany, Calif., home).
He hit the big time when, at the prompting of his wife, Joan, an artist, he answered Oakland's call for a public art project with a proposal to build an earth maze that would symbolize the city. Oakland paid him $5,895 for the project, which he began in January. The path of the maze follows the outline of a circle within a cross within a circle, which he said is a symbol of an ideal city. "The boundaries and roads lead to a center," he added. "The park is in the heart of the city."
Regina Almaguer, the public arts coordinator of Oakland, said: "His was one of the few proposals that dealt with earthworks, and that people could walk through, and both children and adults could enjoy. It also broadened the concept of what public art could be. It makes people think about their physical environment." "
Mr. Champion's labyrinths are a sort of earth sculpture with a primeval flavor. They feature a single path winding from an entrance to the center. Generally, the mazes are constructed of landscaped mounds less than two feet high that serve as walls. The mazes are characterized by simple yet distinct symmetrical patterns that resemble ripples in a pond.
The mounds are often lined with rocks and planted with ground cover and flowers. His mazes have ranged in size from 396 square feet to 4,725 square feet. Prices range from $1,000 to more than $5,000.
The purpose behind the mazes is not to be challenged, as in puzzle mazes, but to enjoy the walk.
"It's a pathway to nowhere," said Mr. Champion, who has also published a book, "Earth Mazes" (Earth Maze Publishing, 1990). "The journey, not the center, is the goal." Most clients are homeowners interested in the maze as a meditative tool, he said. On journeys into various mazes over the last five years, he had sometimes felt euphoria, dizziness or an energetic charge, he added.
The earth maze's mystical overtones may sound like a California phenomenon, but labyrinths, and symbols of them, have appeared for centuries in myths, rituals, art, architecture and literature.
"When you look at labyrinths historically, there have been peaks of interest," said Sig Lonegren, a Greensboro, Vt.-based labyrinth consultant who has worked on 15 labyrinths in the Northeast in the last five years. "There seems to be a peak of interest right now."
In 1991, Britain celebrated the Year of the Maze. Parabola, a magazine published by the Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition in New York, devoted its June issue to labyrinths. Recently, the Grace Cathedral for Spiritual Wholeness in San Francisco began a project to build a replica of the Chartres, France, labyrinth in its meditation garden.
Larry Pietrelli, 40, a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, twice spent about five hours in a maze that Mr. Champion built in the backyard of his Concord, Calif., home. Both times, Mr. Pietrelli was in the process of installing a drip-watering system for plants in the maze. "I experienced vivid, intense dreams" on those nights, he said. "And when I awakened in the morning, I was not tired, which is unusual for me."
His wife, Nancy, also a scientist, said she had found walks through the maze relaxing, even though she had found herself pulling weeds from among ice plants on the mounds.
Mr. Lonegren described his labyrinths as simpler than Mr. Champion's. His designs have included a single narrow path of bricks lined end to end, another with walls composed simply of rock and another with yew trees for walls. Mr. Lonegren, who wrote "Labyrinths: Ancient Myths, Modern Uses" (Gothic Image, 1991), serves only as a consultant and designer; he doesn't do the actual labor. Mr. Champion's mazes are landscapes and require more labor, most of which he does himself.
Once the client decides upon a design, Mr. Champion draws it on the ground with spray paint. Then he removes the earth from the path and shapes dirt into barriers with a tamper that he designed.
A maze cannot be dug just anywhere, Mr. Champion said. Before lifting a shovel, he said, he engages in a siting process that may cause eye-rolling among skeptics. "I do my metaphysical stuff," he said. He said he dowses to see "whether the local spirits want me there."
The technique is similar to dowsing for water and to feng shui, the Chinese art of placement.
To find a site for the Oakland public maze, Mr. Champion sought help from John Thomas, a landscape architect for the city and county of San Francisco who lives in Oakland. Together, they settled upon a location near a grove of cork oak trees.
"I didn't get any psychic experience," Mr. Thomas recalled. "What touches me, though, is the metaphorical side to it, that it's like a journey. It's like being in a Victor Hugo novel: Your fate seems to draw you toward your goal, and then away from it. You're made aware of the process as well as your ultimate destination. It's a fun piece and it has a deeper level to it."
So what is a former scientist like Mr. Champion doing being interested in spirits, psychic energy and other unproved phenomena?
"I've always been interested in metaphysics and spirituality," said Mr. Champion, who gives talks on his specialty. "But I've never really practiced it. Scientists do scoff at this kind of stuff. There's no proof for it, but there's no proof that there's a God either. If you have to have scientific proof, you've lost your faith."