On Retreat

This is a “cross-post” from my newsletter reluctant sleuth

reluctant sleuth is a Substack newsletter in which I write about mystery fiction, and my search for clues about the mystery of life. I think this particular post might also fit for this blog. If you want to check out what I do on reluctant sleuth, you can find it here:


I’m at Jericho House, near Wainfleet, Ontario, for a (mostly) silent 4 day retreat. This afternoon I went for a long walk in the conservation area next door. It surrounds a disused quarry. From the website of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority:

“Once covered by a shallow, warm sea 300-450 million years ago, what is now the Wainfleet Wetlands Conservation Area was the site of a clay and limestone quarry from the late 19th century until the 1960s. Fossils of the plants and animals that lived in the Paleozoic sea can be seen in the exposed limestone of the Onondaga Formation, in the quarry walls and on rock tableland…

I’ve loved fossils since my late teens, when a guide gave me a fossilized shark’s tooth during a tour of the Science Gallery at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. I still have it. I named it Genesis, and I’ve occasionally used it to take a bite out of religious claims the Earth was formed in 7 days, about 6000 years ago.

When I see fossils “in situ”, as I did in the quarry today, it touches a deep place in me. It’s moving to see signs of life that go back millions of years.

…the quarries and clay pits have naturalized and are home for fish, birds, waterfowl, turtles, snakes and plants. Unique alvar communities of rock-loving plants also thrive in the shallow soils…

It brings me joy to see vegetation rooted in the most unlikely places. Life persists. These remind me of the chicks and hens in my rock garden at home.

…contains the best exposed fossil and viewing area of geological formation and fossils (ancient marine lifeforms) in the Niagara Peninsula, highlighting species that lived 380- 450 million years ago in the shallow warm saltwater sea of the Michigan Basin that covered the site. Trilobites, crinoids, shellfish and corals can be seen.

This is what the floor of the quarry looked like this afternoon. I walked halfway around the rim until I found a gentle slope down to the quarry floor. It looks like beach in this photo, but it’s actually sedimentary stone, with a thin top coat of dried mud, algae, miraculous vegetation, and many, many rock fragments.

When I walk an actual beach, my eyes are almost always at my feet. I seek out interesting rocks. This requires slow, short steps and the willingness to bend at the waist and stare down, looking like I’m either catching my breath or losing my lunch.

It’s worth the risk of looking foolish. I brought some of what I found back to the retreat house, cleaned them, and laid them out on a paper labyrinth. Sadly, when I read the website for the Conservation Area, I learned we are not actually meant to remove the rocks. (I’ll take them back tomorrow, honest.)

For now, you can see some of the varieties named in italics above. (All except for the specimen outside the ring at 7 o’clock on the dial. It’s a porcelain shard. I just liked the colour. I’ll keep that one, since it’s not a rock.)

This day began with a teaching about the labyrinth, an ancient, archetypal symbol that’s fascinated people for centuries. Many retreat centres have one, as do some public spaces. A church I once served had one lined out in masking tape on blue plastic tarps joined so that when unfolded, they covered the floor of the sanctuary, after we moved the chairs out.

The world’s most famous labyrinth is on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral. (They also have to shift chairs to use it!)

There is nothing all that mysterious about walking a labyrinth. It’s walking. But it’s possible to walk with the intention it be a spiritual practice. Unlike a maze, a true labyrinth has only one entrance, and provides an unimpeded, if circuitous route to the centre, at which point you may pause, before retracing your steps on the only way out.

I’ve walked labyrinths in many places, and often found the experience helpful, and laden with meaning. Today I decided to walk around the quarry, down into it, back out and around it again, intending this would be my “labyrinthine” journey.

Labyrinth guides will often suggest taking a moment before you cross the threshold of the labyrinth, to quiet your insides, and open yourself to the experience of the walk.

Walk a natural pace, paying attention to what may be found in the present moment, something like the old sleuth searching out stones on a beach.

You might take time at the centre of the labyrinth, to notice and receive what arises internally- thoughts, images, feelings. (Maybe like looking closer at that cool stone you picked up.)

On the way back out, you may find you’re integrating whatever you discovered on the inward walk. There may be something useful or beautiful in the thoughts, images, or feelings that emerged. Unlike the fossils, which I have to take back, you can bring home what you find.

What did I find today? (I mean, other than the fossils.)

Yesterday I sat with a spiritual director and stumbled through an incomplete summary of my life, internal and external. She suggested I find a way to listen to my “inner child”, to attend to what they need. She went on to say this archetypal character might need some coaxing, and it might be best to invite them out to play, and see where it leads.

Do you remember how to play?

At this stage of life, I find it so much easier to be task oriented. So my “job” for today was to get outside, do a large-scale labyrinth-like walk, and get at the “work” of gaining deep insight.

At about the halfway mark, down on the flats of the quarry, near the water’s edge, I heard something. A vigorous splashing. I stopped walking, to look out at the water.

There was a strange, circular splashing wave. Every so often, a dark triangle broke the surface. I realized it must be a big fish, because the creature had no need to surface.

The tail-fin, I supposed it was, would point almost straight up, which led me to surmise the rest of the fish was engaged in directing its mouth to the bottom, to feed on what ever bottom-feeders feed on.

The circular wave would subside, and then the tail would cut a line in the water for a few yards, and the dance began anew. I was hypnotized.

My reverie was interrupted by a voice from above. Seriously.

A woman standing up top at the edge overlooking the quarry shouted down, “Any idea what that is?”

I said, “No, but it makes me very curious.”

And then I was.


I began to see more around me.

That’s actually when I noticed many of the rocks I’d been walking over and around, bore fossils.

I’d somehow forgotten I like to hunt for rocks. I was in a quarry, just walking.

A fish, and a strange voice reminded me to take a look.

The child in me finds the best rocks.