What I realized from reflecting on my snake dreams was that perhaps the possible existence of snakes in the woods was part of what makes the Guilford College Woods able to function as a refuge. After all, refuges are not singularly for human beings; “wildlife refuge” is a very common phrase to hear in conservation circles. Often, being the bird lover I am, I think of places in terms of the birds that live there. The lake that sits at the entrance of the Woods is populated by a single Muscovy duck (once half of a pair, the other having been relocated) and a flock of Canada geese. I love geese, and have ever since I watched Fly Away Home in a dark classroom in middle school; Mary Chapin Carpenter’s version of 10,000 Miles is still nearly enough to bring me to tears. I remember times spent by the lake this year, as midterms and now finals ravaged my first year of college more than I ever expected, little spots of brightness emerging as I close my eyes and picture my friend Marshall tossing okra anxiously at the muscovy hovering nearby, or I remember sitting on the bench in the Woods, staring up at the Carolina wrens and chickadees perched in the beech branches while Ty told me about the mockingbirds that lived (and cried out, frequently) in her neighborhood’s trees. I think of those moments and realize that while my solitary time spent encircled by geese was lovely, the Woods were much sweeter when I experienced them with my friends. Recently, I complained to the aforementioned Ty and Marshall about how someone had removed the plank from the swing tree’s rope. Although it filled me with adrenaline fueled by my fear of heights, I loved the swing tree and was deeply hurt by the petty theft laid against it. So we ventured out to try and repair it, Ty’s phone blaring Nicki Minaj hits in the near-sunset. I led us the wrong way at first, and had to backtrack to the fork and correct our trajectory. We arrived at the swing tree, adorned with carvings of names and symbols, most notably one that said “DAVE N TRACY FRIENDS ‘84”. I was reminded of my first encounter with this carving, on a walk into the woods alone in late February. I almost always went to the lake and the woods by myself, feeling afraid of seeing other people, or even worse having them see me. I never really felt I belonged, always seeming to creep among the trees like a trespasser, an outsider. I remember hoping that one day I could overcome that fear, not have to run away from the geese and back to Milner every time someone approached the lake, my skin itching and feeling sick all over from having someone else see me and still be willing to approach. But even as we failed to repair the swing, the black rope hanging empty like a noose near the ground, I still felt a kind of comfort and belonging that I hadn’t ever really felt when I was by myself.
There was a sense of disappointment at the loss of the swing, but it was getting dark out anyways, and I think the three of us were just happy to have gone on a very-mini hike together. And so we trudged back to the lake, a couple other people hanging around the benches, and sat on the little brick wall facing the fire pit, sadly filled with beer bottles and other little bits of trash. Ty’s phone still blaring music, we sat in the nice early-spring breeze and watched as several nycticeius humeralis, Evening bats, swooped around in search of bugs to eat. In that moment, I realized that the refuge offered by the Guilford College Woods was not only for virtue of its ability to grant physical freedom or escape, but was also found in the thread of love that tied all of us together. The Woods are important to me and almost everyone at Guilford now, just as they were important to indigenous people who lived in Greensboro long before it had such a name, to Levi Coffin and Vina Curry, to Dave and Tracy in 1984 and to decades worth of Guilfordians whose names I will likely never know. But despite the fact that I will never know them and they will never know me or my friends, we are connected through the woods. It’s a beautiful thing to imagine that long line of people, our community growing alongside the old growth forest, imagining how many people the Tulip Poplar had met alone. And even if it sounds like a cliche New Age attempt to seem “spiritual,” I can feel their energy all around me as I walk through the woods. I gaze at the carved bark on the trees and I feel them calling out to me, crying to be remembered. To be understood, to be loved. I feel the same desires inside me, and I wonder what monuments I will leave that will convey those feelings to the ones who come after me. But most importantly, as I feel the weight of all of that love, fear, and hope, I am comforted by the knowledge that I will never have to carry it alone. As I sit shoulder to shoulder between Ty and Marshall, watching the Evening bats make close-call divebombs above our heads, I realize that the true refuge the woods offers is the chance to be in a community so deeply and lovingly connected that it doesn’t require words. No collection of aspirated phonetics could ever speak as loudly as Nature did to me when I gazed across the woods in a haze and made eye contact with a doe much closer than I expected. The kind of intentional quiet I assumed in that moment felt nearly Divine in its power over me. It calls to mind Quaker worship and their form of intentional silence, but I think I’d take the woods over a meetinghouse any day. Some people go to Meeting to sit quietly and wait for God to speak, I go to the woods and sit quietly in hopes a deer will emerge from the vegetation and fix its big shining eyes on me. Perhaps in the end, those two silences run together and become the same thing.
The 1720s were a particularly important time for the United States, in terms of births. Roger Sherman was born in 1721, Samuel Adams the next year in 1722. John Morton, Lewis Morris, Benjamin Harrison. Signers of the Declaration of Independence, important American statesmen. But somewhere tucked into those years, a little sapling was beginning to grow. More than one hundred and ten years before Guilford College would be founded by the Religious Society of Friends, the now iconic champion tulip poplar was merely a little sprout. And it would go on to have quite the eventful adolescence. From the Revolutionary War to the Underground Railroad and the Civil War, the tulip poplar and the entirety of the Guilford College Woods have stood as silent witnesses throughout history and played an important role in these events, as well as throughout time, as a place of retreat and escape.
If you’ve never seen one, a tulip poplar seedling is quite an interesting thing to lay eyes on. It has three little green bumps at its center, like a pod of peas without the pod. Little four-pronged leaves stick out from the pod-less pea stack like arms being waved wildly or thrown open for a hug, and a host of tan roots shoots out from the bottom, calling to mind fringed bell-bottom pants. Just the look of the seedling is joyful, standing in stark contrast to the dark history witnessed by Guilford College’s champion tulip poplar. It creates a feeling much like a human life: starting out vibrant with a great zeal for life, dancing our way through childhood, only to find ourselves trudging through a violently somber young adulthood. Such an experience was shared by one Levi Coffin, whose joyful childhood was also marred by the horrific system of enslavement in the American South and North Carolina in particular, as he witnessed a group of enslaved men chained to a cart heading down the road. Levi’s father spoke to the men, who told him they had been separated from their wives and children. Levi’s life as an abolitionist took root there, just as the tulip poplar took root in what was known as the New Garden Woods years before. I imagine Levi returning to his childhood home in Greensboro, wondering deeply and silently (as Quakers are often wont to do) “[h]ow terribly we should feel if father were taken away from us” (Coffin 1880). But all was not lost for Levi, as he had the ability like many people before him to slip into the safety of the woods and escape the burdens of life. Growing up just north of the now Guilford College Woods, with his Meetinghouse on the other side of them, he described them as a “refuge”. Certainly, that is an accurate name for them in the historical sense – but also in the personal and spiritual sense.
To enslaved people on the Underground Railroad and Quakers escaping mandatory service in the Civil War, the Guilford College Woods circa 1819-1852 represented a very physical, tangible freedom. A freedom from either dehumanizing bondage and forced labor or from the horrors of unethical war. The tulip poplar is frequently described as a “silent witness” to these events, standing still and quiet as the forces of freedom and slavery, fear and hope, death and rebirth fought a bloody war tooth and nail. It is quite something to close your eyes and try to imagine the world from the perspective of the wood’s sacred champion. Imagine the gait of feet, both sneaking and perhaps running. The southern wind against the bark, carrying smell after smell to the noses of slave hounds, until a trail led across water and the scent was lost. The sound of strangled frustration, cries of jubilation, wailing of dashed hope and lost freedom.
This time, my visit to the woods was more intentional. I wanted to go deliberately, and gain some deeper understanding of the history of the place along the way. Something that popped up frequently for me was carvings in trees. Hearts with initials were the most common, but there were other words and symbols left behind for posterity.
It occurred to me through these many tree-as-canvas examples that a key feature of human beings is our desire to leave a legacy. The sign at the entrance of the Woods, proclaiming its eternal place in the history of the Underground Railroad. The carvings on the trees to mark love that may be lost, or may continue to this day. Perhaps even the pieces of litter down by the lake are a cry out to be remembered.
As Levi Coffin was growing up just north of these woods, with his Meetinghouse on the other side of them, he described them as a “refuge”. Certainly, that is an accurate name for them in the historical sense – but also in the personal and spiritual sense. In A Winter Walk, Thoreau offers the audience the chance to be cleansed by the purity of winter, by going out into the cold and snow that so many have hidden away from. But I believe that as the scope of rejection of nature has grown, so too has nature’s ability to cleanse us and free us from the weight of everyday life.
It’s something that has led me down to the lake many times now since my first trip with my friends. But now I go alone – often turning back or heading into the woods if the lake is already occupied. I’m not sure if it’s my fear of people or my inner transcendentalist demanding the kind of solitude that breeds real reflection. Either way, I hope one day I can sit on the swing and see someone else approach the beach without my skin itching and telling me to leave.
I hope one day I can sit and feel that I belong, and that no one has come to chase me away.
I don’t think i’m going to be doing any tree carvings any time soon. Not that i’m passing judgement on those who do, as I know all too well the wish that those who come after me will remember me. But I don’t want the trees to shoulder the burden of my legacy. Already they carry so much emotion, from love and elation and freedom to misery and bondage and heartbreak. They’ve got enough going on without having to sport my initials, and all the life and personhood that comes with them.
I went walking a couple weeks ago, right after my roommate had arrived back on campus and I had begun to feel cooped up, unable to pace back and forth in the room like I had for the entirety of January. As I rolled through the walkway leading from Founder’s to the road, I realized how often I had taken this path and decided to make my first trip out to the woods. I felt sort of awkward on my way there, suffering from my ever-present feeling that I’m somewhere I don’t really belong or I’m not supposed to be.
The whole time I walked, my somewhat instinctual and somewhat personal fear of snakes was close by. It probably would’ve made more sense if it were my fear of spiders instead, but that seemed further away despite the fact that the forest was likely crawling with them. Snakes have always followed me, often in the form of recurring dreams. I’ve had several dreams where I was bitten by a snake, always either in the right hand or in the face. I thought about my snake dreams as I wandered through the woods, my boots crunching the grass and the blonde-leaved trees standing still as they watched me walk by. I passed little mounds of moss and fungi, green and cream islands in the ocean of fallen leaves. A wide tree toppled over, leaving a crater of red soil in its wake. Shortly after the snake dreams, I always experienced a change in my life, often in the form of loss. I had one before losing a friend, one before changing schools. One heralded the death of my grandfather, who died of liver cancer when I was ten years old.
The snakes have appeared as omens in my real life as well. When I was young, my mother would often take my younger brother and I to roadside parks or soccer fields to play. It didn’t cost much money, and it seemed a sort of adventure back then, getting to see parks all over our little corner of the state. One day, we had gone to a little playground with the usual swing/jungle gym/slide setup. My brother ran out of the car ahead of myself and my mother towards a ramp that led up to the playset.
Under the ramp, I saw a large red snake with what looked like a spade-shaped head. Alarm bells rang out and I called out to my brother who was running towards it with wild abandon. Years later, I still tell the story sometimes, much to my brother’s chagrin. He is offended that I even jokingly insinuate that I saved his life in some way. “There’s no copperheads in Michigan,” he’d say with a sour look on his face. “Just some garden snake. You made a big deal out of nothing.”
And perhaps the story is misleading the way I tell it, because I never mention the dreams. I never let slip that maybe my fear was less for my brother’s safety than it was concerned with my own fear of change.
Don’t Go Too Far
When I was young, my family and I would often visit Kalkaska to see my grandparents, my aunt, and my uncles. Often these visits were during the summer, so my dad would ride Harleys with my grandpa, my uncle Les would take us dirt biking, and we’d spend lots of days boating or playing around on the beach. Driving out to Blue or Bear Lake was a day long adventure, all of us heading out in the morning in my grandpa’s big surfer van. I loved to boat and jet ski, but swimming was always my favorite activity when it came to the water. It felt so free, to glide through the water and feel encompassed in the warmth and the silence of being underwater, sun shining down to the floor of the lake and alighting all the fish and plants swaying in the tide.
One specific memory I have is being very little and just starting to swim, and this big floaty tube my grandpa gave me to hold onto. I remember how he kept calling out to me for swimming out too far, so I only got to swim around in the shallows with the sand all around my feet. It was warm, I could feel the sun on my back and heating up my hair, which was still the towhead blonde color from my early childhood. His frequent calls for me to stay near were frustrating to me as a child, but reminiscing shows it was nothing but love. Worry and love tied together in a deep embrace, which seems to be the core pair of emotions at the heart of the parent or grandparent and child relationship. That wasn’t my concern at the time, I simply wanted to swim out as far as my little legs could take me, but now the thought colors the memory in nice rosy shades.
The water was comfortable and warm, the sweet freshwater lake rocking me up and down as the tide came in and went out like a rhythm of breathing. My family was spread out between standing behind me on the beach, or swimming ahead of me out in the water. I still have never swam in or even touched the ocean; my lake-loving childhood has made me skittish about even the brackish waters of Lake Erie. “Bull sharks in Lake Michigan,” was a headline that broke when I was in middle school, and it put me off of the ocean and ocean bound rivers for a long time. Maybe I’ll get over it someday – that remains to be seen, in the murky veil of the future. For now, I prefer the lakes I spent so long baptizing myself in as a child, or the nice chlorinated water of pools and jacuzzies. Even if they turn me as red as a lobster, at least there’s no sharks in the hot tub. (At least not in the comfort of the real world. Let’s not talk about that ghost shark movie.)