The following article authored by Mary Esselman appeared on Cville Weekly on June 21, 2023:

“It’s the end of the world as we know it…”
…and I feel fine (thanks to the Botanical Garden of the Piedmont)

Botanical Garden of the Piedmont offers an enchanted nature escape in the heart of the city.

Some say the world will end in fire (thanks, Canada), / Some say in ice (running through the wireless veins of Chat GPT). / From what I’ve tasted of CODE PURPLE haze / I’d say we’ll all go down ablaze. / But if we dodge existential dread / And visit the Botanical Garden of the Piedmont instead, / We’ll romp in shady, leafy glee / And wind up hopeful as WALL-E.

I’ve been contemplating mass extinction lately, no idea why. The doomsday stuff piles up in my head even when I’m just driving home from the grocery store on an early summer day, not even listening to the news, just head-bopping along to a Harry Styles song (can you get more carefree than “Watermelon Sugar”?).

So there I am, singing the wrong words off-key (but also worrying about Ukraine), when I see the sign for the Botanical Garden of the Piedmont, and it beckons to me, like Merlin from Arthurian myth. How many times have I driven past barely noticing the place, or thinking, “Huh, looks like scrubby brush and a lean-to to me?”

Not this time. I pull over, park, and, crunching along the mulched path, I enter a little green glade. I see paths into the forest, a rough-hewn birdhouse, a garden shed, and Hobbit-like benches. My body softens into the breeze rustling the branches around me. I start down a trail, looking for fairies, when I spy, at a child’s eye-level, a twiggy, hand-painted sign that says: “Sit. Relax. Watch Birds.”

Fairies do exist! And so, it seems, does an arboreal antidote to apocalyptic angst: the Botanical Garden of the Piedmont.

A woodland utopia right down the street from Charlottesville High School.

Because for free, from dawn to dusk, in the heart of the city, lies a storybook secret garden, just waiting to be explored.

How it went

Since 2008, community members have worked to transform the east side of McIntire Park (bordering the John Warner Parkway and Melbourne Avenue) into a space for environmental education, restoration, and recreation. Only a small part of the nearly 15-acre site has been developed so far, with plans underway for an amphitheater, canopy tree walk, pavilion, and more, but already there’s so much to see and do.

I’ve gone three times now, and each time I’ve noticed something new—a tree that loops up and down like a question mark; a heart-painted stone nestled in a groove between branches; a LOOK UP sign by the side of a stream. Once I joined local artist Robert Kamide and some folks building cairns, stacks of balanced rocks. Another time I happened upon a clearing where kids sat (and played) on tree-stump stools while a JMRL librarian told a tale.

On my last visit I was floored to find, where a week before I’d seen only weeds, a labyrinth, with this hand-painted sign at its entrance:

A labyrinth is not a maze.
A maze is designed for you
To lose your way;
A labyrinth is designed
For you to find your way.

Yes, the place is magical, alive with surprise and thoughtfulness, like the wide, wood-chip-covered trails (for those averse to ticks, poison ivy, and forest friends that even Merlin would avoid).

“Botanical garden” is such a formal, science-y term for a place that feels like an enchanted nature park. But as if through osmosis, the garden makes “science” feel like an adventure, a gambol, even a brush with the sacred. Go for a butterfly walk or an arts program. Volunteer. Or just wander over and take to heart John Muir’s words, chalked on the garden’s blackboard: “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”