I often refer to “Under the Willows”.
I keep a link to it at the bottom of my blog with other favourite and meaningful places.
Under the Willows is a summer program for children at risk in Hamilton.
Earlier this winter, as we do every season, we closed the Under the Willows gardens for the year. Similar in some ways to the closing ceremony of the Apothecary’s Garden in Churchill Park, except, we have closed UTW with the children for quite a few years now, and Under the Willows is definitely different. There is no other place or program like it. While our Apothecary’s Garden has great potential for education, Under the Willows functions as a place of healing and restoration for children. Restoration of hope and light.
Established as a healing haven for children at risk, children who’s lives were derailed or darkened by trauma, violence and conflict, Under the Willows performs a profound service and function that finds no comparable reflection anywhere else in our community. Modeled after the Butterfly Garden in Sri Lanka, a healing program for war orphaned children, and inspired by the Spiral Garden in Toronto, Under the Willows, quietly performs its service each summer mostly unheard of and unknown by the public.
Under the Willows is the brainchild of Dr. Ruth Pickering, a retired child psychiatrist, and as the name implies,it is located under a magical grove of 12 Willows. Adjacent to The Lynwood Charlton Center on Upper Paradise in Hamilton, a “last resort” to keep kids out of prison, foster homes, and the “System”. The center’s residence provides a school setting, where a handful of kids can live and learn safely away from home. An opportunity to heal wounds before scar tissue permanently limits the reach of limber limbs and bright futures.
For 3 days a week, 4-6 weeks per summer, artists, musicians, craftspeople, creators, volunteers and staff of Lynwood Charlton Center come together to man an alternate universe of healing and creativity, where, for children, anything is possible. A place where the shadow of violence never enters. A world apart, safe and bright.
Under the Willows is a country where nature nurtures, heals and teaches. Where children can laugh, dream, sing, create and imagine again. Where magic and possibility spring from fertile imaginations to grow as naturally as the lilies and flowers that find their way into salads and magical potions.
Supported financially by grants and the Lynwood Charlton Center, UTW is separated from the surrounding world not only by the canopy of protective weeping willows, but by the bridge which sets a subconscious boundary between it and the regular world. The only entrance and exit to the gardens in the summertime, the bridge, is a little bit of practical everyday magic. Once crossed, one enters a different world. A place of magic, healing and play.
I have seen the most cynical, defensive and life weary children, open themselves to imagination and possibilities again, laugh, smile and engage. The 5 garden beds are planted with medicinal, edible, magical and fragrant plants. Nature, is an important ingredient in Under the Willows.
Every Spring, volunteers are called to help out with “The Big Dig”, a community effort to plant, prepare and primp the space for the children. Planting vegetables that will ripen in time for the program, gourds, beans, tomatoes and cucumbers, more Lilies, Hostas and other perennial edible flowers that will enhance the garden’s crop a little bit more each year, edging the beds and re-stocking missing medicinal and magical plants, while adding as many berries and fruit as can be afforded. All plants are used by the program, one way, or another, for snacks and lunches, as craft materials, garnishes for salads or in “drama dress-up”, in potions, lotions, magic and medicine. Children are encouraged to tend the garden beds, work with nature in any capacity that draws them.
Incredibly quirky and colourful characters appear on a regular basis to engage the children in activities, bring messages from other worlds, or add a new piece of information that the children work into the story line. One personality that is permanently on the premises is Gramma Ruth, AKA Dr. Ruth Pickering, who monitors the children, takes them to the dream lodge, ( a structure woven of living willows), if they need some quiet time alone, a band-aid on a boo-boo or a little grandmotherly guidance.
Children take part in any of the engaging creative activities that inspire them. Drama Dress-up, Oceans of Potions, or Clay World where a whole world is born from a huge, shapeless lump of clay each morning. Figures and scenarios emerge from the clay describing events and characters, sometimes fantasy scenarios peopled by fictional figures, but often reflections of real life situations. Life is born daily in clay world, then, for better or worse returned to a nondescript lump every afternoon when the children leave. There is something healing about this daily renewal, and always having a chance to start over.
They can participate in the huge sandbox, gardening, creating lunch or snacks, or any one of the many special craft projects set up by the artists and craftspeople. However, once the season is underway, and the storyline is discovered, a purpose and direction to creativity becomes clear. This is when the children are actively engaged in creating the mythology and storyline that becomes the focal point of activities, and the season’s finale.
“Oceans of Potions” is the activity “station” I conduct in my function of artist/gardener/wizard/priest which facilitates the making of magic, medicine, incense and perfume, while encouraging an intimate and healing relationship with nature.
In Under the Willows, children are the protagonists, they lead the way and write the storyline. A story that is woven through the fabric of Under the Willows, often continuing from year to year. A story created to explain some very unusual events!
Mysterious and unexplained objects just appear in the gardens. Whether eggs of some yet to be discovered creatures, or a giant shoe, some imaginary personal belonging left by an unknown being, or a glimpse of some strange activities beyond the fence, children’s imaginations engage and make sense of it, clothe it with meaning and give it life in the context of the Garden.
Music circles are more than just singalongs. They are also where the children come together to share their thoughts, insights and visions. It is where the storyline is discovered and developed with a little help and support from staff. From these discoveries, spring communications, invitations, ceremonies, craft projects, offerings and rituals, while staff unobtrusively support and facilitate manifesting their visions. This process often culminates in a grand parade and ceremony that ties up the season and leaves them dreaming of possibilities till the next summer..
This is where Oceans of Potions was born. A teepee of Cedar staves, covered with colorful cloth and filled with magical curios. Colours, textures, fragrances, incense and resins, bone and wood, claws and skulls, brass and glass, symbols and sigils, all creating an environment of magic, and mystery, where children are drawn to congregate with mortars and pestles, mixing, pounding and grinding magical herbs from the gardens, essential oils, and other natural materials to create potions for the characters in the story line, or for those in their own lives.
The name, location and presence of 12 mature weeping willow trees is providential. Under the Willow trees, children find a safe haven to explore and express emotion and imagination, to reconnect with Nature and self. Willow trees traditionally represent sadness, but also the relief of pain and the process of regeneration. Though they do weep, Willows are known to ease pain with the salicylic acid found under their bark, (Aspirin), and not only are they one of the most flexible trees, easy to weave and difficult to break, but Willows are the quickest of all trees to come back to life and almost magically regenerate themselves. One twig or branch, stuck in the ground, even upside down, will quickly root and grow into a magnificent Willow tree. Could there have been a more perfect setting and environment for these children?
Keeping Under the Willows going from year to year has been a real challenge. Yet, every year, limitations have been overcome, finances have somehow appeared, and just enough volunteers have shown up to squeeze by and make it happen again. Please consider supporting this very worthy program. Any way you can.
Though the initiatives of Dr. Pickering established Under the Willows, her ongoing presence, and the dedicated involvement of many other people have been important factors keeping the garden alive, an enormous amount of credit is due to my friend, Artistic Director and co-ordinator, musician Daniel Allen, who has gradually taken over most of the key functions that have kept the garden going from year to year.
An extremely talented musician and teacher, Daniel not only organizes, co-ordinates and oversees most of the critical components, interviews and hires all the artists, runs the thrice daily music circles, performs the roles of Gramma Thunderhead, Corey Soufle’ and other garden “Guests”, is responsible for the website, organizes the “Big Dig”, and the garden closing ceremony, and often picks up the slack himself to make sure everything is always running smoothly. That being said, I have to add that Daniel resigned his position last week. Though I started writing this post before hearing of his resignation, it seems appropriate to mention it here now. He carried a lot on his own, and knowing the kind of perfectionist he is, how much he would demand of himself, it’s not hard to imagine the stresses of such a job.
What will happen to Under the Willows now? Will there be another season? It would be a great shame to see this unique and inspired healing endeavour disappear from Hamilton. Even if most of us never knew of its existence.
If you can donate financially, or if you can give some of your time. If you would like to be on the mailing list to volunteer for the “Big Dig” or any other important function, or if you would like to become a “Willipudian” artist, please, check out and SHARE their Web page here. Under the Willows is such a wonderful and important community program, it should not go unrecognized or unsupported by any of us.