Selfie of author and her husbandI’ve always loved history, so over time my husband and I have evolved the habit of periodic “field trips” to places of interest. Our recent foray to ancient earthworks here in Ohio taught me as much about how to increase calm in my life as it did about people of the past. Your favorite excursions and hobbies just might offer you the same benefit.

About Ancient Earthworks

diagram of Octagon EarthworksWe were motivated to visit Octagon Earthworks in Newark, OH, on one of its quarterly open days. The land has been leased to the Mound Builders Country Club for over a century**. Their golf course is situated on 50 acres entirely within eight constructed mound segments, each 550 feet long and 5-6 feet high, as well as within a 20-acre circular enclosure adjacent to the octagon.

Part of the largest concentration of geometric and monumental earthen architecture in the world, these structures are remnants of a vast system throughout the region. Ancient people probably used them for ceremonial purposes, and evidence suggests that people traveled to them from far distances. The juxtaposition of ancient culture and manicured modern golf is rather surreal, but the site’s inherent sacredness remains palpable, if only because of its sheer size and scope.

One theory is that the earthworks were built on such a massive scale for astronomical accuracy—long, straight embankments provide longer sight lines that increase the accuracy of astronomical alignments. The Octagon Earthworks align with the four moonrises and four moonsets that mark the limits of a complicated 18.6-year-long cycle.  Two professors at Earlham College in Indiana made this discovery in 1982, recovering a wealth of indigenous geometric and astronomical knowledge encoded into the design.

Mound surrounding golf green

Unexpected Calm

Just down the road, at nearly 1,200 feet in diameter, the Great Circle Earthworks is equally inspiring, also massive. The 8 feet high walls surround a 5 feet deep moat. At first glance, this dedicated site resembles a typical city park. However, walking further and further in, I felt transported. The mystery of the past felt quite present. As we returned to our car, I said, “If we lived near here, I would visit this place all the time.”

What prompted that impulse? The grandeur I sensed at both sites created the experience of awe, I’ve since realized. Author Ethan Kross describes awe as “the wonder we feel when we encounter something powerful that we can’t easily explain.” A 2019 study showed that when we’re feeling awe, our brains engage differently. As a result, we focus less on ourselves and immerse more fully in the world around us. Intuitively, as I wandered through the earthworks that day, I recognized awe’s benefits. I felt calmer. For me, stepping into the past though imagination offers a corrective to mental chatter, putting that voice in perspective.

How to Experience Awe

How does awe show up for you? Would you like to increase the calm in your life? Here are a few ideas.

Go outside after dark and view the night sky.

Seek out a new location and walk mindfully through it. This could be a natural or urban setting, religious or cultural, indoors, or out.

Watch a video depicting natural wonders.

Read/learn more about something that fascinates you.

Write about previous awe-inspiring moments and events in detail. Where were you? How did you feel? Who was with you?

Find more ideas to inspire awe here.

**Ohio History Connection is trying to end the lease early to make the site fully available and to respect its cultural importance. (Two courts have agreed but the club continues to appeal, so the Ohio Supreme Court is hearing the case.)