By MICHELLE LOCKE Associated Press Writer
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- On a mild fall day, the wind skimming over the dune-colored flanks of the hills above Oakland makes the only sound.
Within this pastoral quiet lies a mystery -- a series of mazes laid out in soil and stone across the bottoms of sheltered canyons, their symmetry at odds with the rough-hewn setting.
Mazes have long been used to represent the mystical meaning of life. But the question raised by these earth-and-stone patterns is a bit more basic: Who put them there, and why?
``I don't know exactly when they were noticed. They just sort of came to our attention,'' said Ned MacKay, spokesman for the parks agency in charge of the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, where the mazes are located.
Park officials believe one of the labyrinths was created in 1989, marked across the floor of an old stone quarry by a San Francisco Bay sculptor and psychic. The other four then appeared in tucks and folds of the bald hills rimming the edges of Oakland.
Park policy forbids any rearranging of nature -- but the mazes are mostly left undisturbed.
``People seem to enjoy them so we're taking a laissez faire attitude,'' MacKay said.
Stumbling upon the mazes for the first time can be an unsettling experience.
Hiker Beth Elliott went looking for the labyrinths some years ago, but walked past them unaware until the day she decided to walk off the trail and peer over a fence set at the top of a volcanic cliff.
``It just appeared in front of me,'' she said. ``It was incredibly stunning, breathtaking.''
She has become a frequent visitor, often tracing the narrow, intricate paths to their center.
``I see it as making kind of an inward journey. When I finally tracked the place down ... it was around the time that I found that my father was dying,'' Elliott said. ``It seemed whenever I went up there it was as though walking around there, hiking around there, my point of view, my perspective, got lifted up. I was able to work through a lot of emotions.''
The labyrinths are simply made, marked out with lines of raised earth set with small rocks, less than a foot high, and range from 50 feet to about 100 feet across. They are based on a medieval design used by New Agers, a single pathway looping toward the center.
Three of the mazes are round, one is heart-shaped and another is a collection of small designs.
Letters, coins and trinkets are stuffed into rough stone shrines at their centers.
One handwritten message declared: ``Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.''
Some offerings are mystical, an incense stick, a tarot card.
``One time I could swear that someone had left some cremated remains,'' said Elliott.
Some are just strange, like the miniature Teletubby toy stuffed into old sweat socks.
Park employees occasionally clear out the shrines to keep the mementos from becoming litter.
Sabina Magliocco, an assistant professor of anthropology at Cal State-Northridge, theorizes that some people feel compelled to leave a tangible symbol of their experience.
``People are using them for their own personal journeys and maybe they leave something of their own the way that you would leave a piece of yourself maybe as a token of thanks,'' she said.
Magliocco gets ``a great sense of serenity'' when she visits, and likes the bit of mystery growing up around the mazes.
``I think that there's a folklore growing around these labyrinths,'' she said.