Some locations in the woods are well-known among my fellow Guilford students. The Underground Railroad trail and tree is usually the first landmark that comes to mind for most students. With a parking space and sign marking the entrance of the trail off of Nathan Hunt Road, the path to the Underground Railroad Tree diverges to the left which leads the curious traveler to an American Beech tree on the side of the hill. This tree has carvings all other it’s large smooth elephant skin like body that date back decades into history. This tree is often referred to as the Swing Tree. My friends and I called it the Glass Tree because when we found it there were mirror shards surrounding the base. The light reflection is what caught our eye as we ventured the woods. Further down the Underground Railroad tree, it diverges down steeper to an old stone wall now covered in spray paint. It’s likely you’d completely miss it if you weren’t looking for it. The wall seems to have once been a damn across the stream but it no longer impedes the flow of water next to it. My friend and I had been exploring that area one day when we found a large wooden bridge embedded deep in the water. Identifying that it was still fully intact and determined to pull it out, we revisited the bridge another day equipped with a rope. Not afraid to get wet or dirty, we tugged and heaved the bridge about 6 yards over to the stone wall and laid it across the stream to provide easy passage for all who may visit after us.
The Underground Railroad Tree and its current trail has only been a recently developed attraction. The tree itself has gained in popularity because of how long it has been growing in this area. The trail that people walk was not the route of the underground railroad. It is simply named as such because this massive Tulip Poplar tree, dating back to before the 1800s, was present during struggle for freedom for enslaved African Americans. Some of the Quakers that had settled on this land, including the famous Levi Coffin (1798- 1877), had assisted these people in their journey to reach freedom. During this time, almost the entire city of Greensboro was covered in forest. The European American Friends established the land that Guilford College sits upon in the 1700s. In 1875, a boarding school for Quaker students was founded with the construction of Founders. “Founders was just a building in the woods with a fence around it just to keep the animals out. They had to raise their own food, farm, raise animals, and chop their own firewood.” said Stan Gillman, a former Guilford librarian, during an interview for the Guilfordian in 1995. He explained to the interviewer that the women stayed in Founders while the men stayed in Duke Hall. Surrounding these two buildings was practically wilderness leaving them totally isolated for many years until John Woody was instructed by the superintendent of the school to make dirt road to the old train depot. Around the forming of this road came the development of all other roads and buildings we see today. The woods have undergone an immense amount of change since the founding of this school by the Religious Society of Friends but the massive old Tulip Poplar remains tall healthy and strong.
The family of deer that Miles and I saw on our first visit made many appearances throughout the year. I recall the excitement I felt every time I spotted them crossing within eyesight. Growing up in the city, it was a new experience for me to observe deer in their home which was also my new home. A few months into school, I was reading the last book of the Lord of the Rings series in a chair I found in the woods. Being completely silent, I heard the family of deer crack a few branches and rustle a few leaves as they moved. Between the trees, I could spot their thin light brown smooth bodies gracefully creep by. I made no noise. I didn’t want to startled them. I wanted them to trust me. After they passed out of sight, I returned to my book. Aragorn (aka Strider) was tracking the Orcs who kidnapped Pippin and Merry. He could read the ground and identify how who had passed through the land, how long ago and how fast. Once I had concluded my reading, inspired by his tracking skills, I decided to follow the route the deer had followed. I had seen which direction they had taken so it wasn’t really a surprise that I found their foot prints in the mud but I was thrilled none the less. I felt like Aragorn following their footprints off the human trail. The footprints are easy to identify in the mud because the two points on the deer’s hoofs stick into the dirt making a sharp inverted point. Following them taking pictures, I also found a blunt wrapper. I took a picture of that too, “Tracks of human presence in this area too!” Excited by the smallest of markings, I was over was over the moon when I emerged from the thicket out onto a human trail I hadn’t known was there.
Turning to my left on the trail, I was overwhelmingly excited to spot a wooden bench made from tree cuts sitting there in silence. As I drew closer, there was so much more there than I had anticipated. The bench had been nailed together around one side of an old small firepit. I found a metal candle holder with two large curving metal arms on each side reaching for the sky like it was something sacred. Behind the firepit, lies an old tent that had been many times washed over by the collection of rain. I tired pulling it out but it was so full of dirt I wouldn’t move from its planted location. I learned later that this upper classman boy I knew had camped out there his freshmen year. I don’t know why he would leave his tent but it was evident to me that students of all generations had explored their way through these woods. I had found the chair I was reading in also by chance of casual exploration. I was galloping through the disc golf meadows when I spotted the subtlest of paths diverting into the woods from the largest meadow in the course. Following this subtle narrow path, I spotted something shiny in the distance. It turned out to be silverware strung on a wire linked between trees. There I found the chair, another old firepit, old worn-down beer cans and what I guessed to be a really old grass cutter. I went back to that location many times finding old objects scattered all over the place. After venturing around for some time, I put together that the households that border this part of the woods used it as a place to dumped their junk. As a person who loves repurposing junk, I relocated many objects I found in the woods. I used a large metal sheet I found to form a roof between a live tree and a dead one, a shelter from the rain or snow. I moved an old broken shelf that I found near this firepit and shelter where I placed all the old beer cans because if this junk is going to sit here, might’ve as well make it an exciting space to happen upon if someone ventures far enough in the right direction. After I happened upon these locations in the far-left side of the Guilford Woods, I had a drive in me to uncover every secret these woods held.
I was raised in the big city of Atlanta, Georgia. I enjoyed growing up within walking distance of a nice large park where there was a lot of space to run around. Candler park has a soccer field, couple of courts, a pool, meadows, a playground, a big golf course, a sewer pond, a runoff stream, and a small hidden wooded area that served as a place of refuge for homeless people until the evil people of the city removed them. It was fantastically fun over the years but for the next chapter in my life, I wanted to live in a city where I could easily access true isolation within nature. Then I met the Guilford Woods. It was love at first visit.
Guilford College was introduced to me by a friend who described it as a “cool Quaker school.” Being a Quaker myself, I was intrigued but hearing about the woods is what really got me hooked. The college recruiter told me that he would go to the woods with his friends all the time when he went to Guilford. He told me of firepits that students made to have parties around and of the many trails that lie within. I told myself, “I need to see this.” Flash a few months later, and I’m there as an admitted prospective student, for Guilford was the only college I applied to. By complete chance, my childhood Quaker friend Miles was there visiting Guilford at the same time. Miles and I went on a walk to the Underground Railroad tree we had heard about. We followed the sign and hung to the right of the trail not far into the woods. It’s hard to tell with the wooden platform underneath but this tree is massive. Sitting on the platform, we spotted a family of deer making its way through the woods. At that moment, those deer put a huge stamped seal on my decision to go to Guilford College. I felt that this was exactly where I was meant to be, like I was already home in this new place.
Beginning school in August, meant we were nearing the end of the summer. The creatures of Guilford College were still roaming the land. I made a new friend who was very good at spotting and catching toads. I eventually was able to do the same. I remember one toad who didn’t want to leave my hand when I went to set it down. I carried him to a stream in the woods. Centipedes were crawling all over the place. One was eventually was picked up by a military boy who told me he usually wouldn’t think twice about killing “one of these things”, but at that moment he found himself holding it. He even named his new friend. It was a tender sight to see man of this kind to bond with nature. Within the first weeks of my arrival at Guilford, I found a blue butterfly who didn’t fly away as I approached. Testing its boundaries, I reached for it. It crawled onto my finger and chose not to leave. The blue wings slowly opened and closed as I walked it back to my room. As its flaps became slower, I set it on my bouquet of flowers, and there it remained frozen as my flowers dried. I never touched them again until I moved out. Being already in love with the woods and excited about the abundance of wildlife I was experiencing, I was determined to become very familiar with every corner of the woods I could reach.
During the dead of winter, all the leaves that once clung to the tree now cover the ground. The fallen leaves create a slippery layer. Sometimes if the temperature is below freezing, the leaves become frozen. You’ll hear crunch, crunch, crunch with each step. Bending down to investigate what you had just broken, you will see small white ice crystals that have formed underneath. However, in the areas with long direct sunlight, the ice is melted into a shallow puddle. Be careful so you don’t slip. It takes about 6 to 12 months for the leaves to decompose and return to the soil. This is why if you dig into the dirt, you may still find leaves in the process of decaying. Microorganisms that eat away at the leaves to break them down, require a humid environment which isn’t available during the winter. Most everything feels like it’s on pause. The woods are quiet and still. Mammals are hibernating, a lot of insects are dead but crows are everywhere. Giant black birds speaking loudly to each other, walking and flying around all over the place. Crows are one of the most intelligent birds on Earth. Don’t get on their bad side because they can remember your face. They might even gossip about you to each other. They thrive in the cities because they’re not picky about what they eat which explains why they’re thriving on the Guilford College campus.
If it does snow, like it did briefly a couple times this year, the snow will melt on the pavement but it sticks around under the shade of the trees for a little while longer. The snow lingers and is enjoyed by the few people who dare enter the woods on a cold winter day. The temperature drops dramatically after the sunsets which is as early as 5 o’clock. Overnight, the small pools of water freeze if it gets cold enough. Without getting below freezing temperatures very often this year, the ground becomes muddy from the cold rain. The woods are very swampy in general but especially during the wet seasons. Thin rivulets become wide streams that are difficult to cross. The walking paths become muddy streams as well, so don’t forget your boots.
The woods (Greensboro) is located in the Cape Fear watershed. The streams in the woods flow into Horsepen Creek. The Horsepen Creek has been identified as an impaired stream by the State of North Carolina. An impaired stream is one that has been identified as having water quality concerns and can no longer support their intended uses. Developments such as roads, parking lots and buildings which have been built along the streams that contaminate the water supply. The small lake that sits along the edge of the woods made by damming a small stream in the 1950’s and was intended for recreational use. The water quality in the lake is lower than the streams following it. This could be due to runoff from the athletic fields and Friendly Avenue. The school does not allow people to use the lake for recreational purposes these days but is still visited by many, but not as many in the winter. Humans are hibernating just like the rest of the woods.
The Guilford Woods has not always been how it is today. This area was once the land of the Saura and Keyawee peoples until it was stolen by European American Friends (Quakers) in the 1700s. This land has a thick and complex history. Today this 240-acre oasis of biodiversity is often used by students and surrounding community members as a place to take a walk or escape from our fast paced world of deadlines and technology. The woods have been used by students since 1837 when the school was founded. At that point it was known as the New Garden Woods. “In 1875, Founders was just a building in the woods with a fence around it just to keep the animals out. They had to raise their own food, farm, raise animals, and chop their own firewood.” said Stan Gillman, a former Guilford librarian, during an interview for the Guilfordian in 1995. Stan discovered that Founders was a boarding school for Quaker children for 50 years. The women stayed in Founders while the men stayed in Duke. Surrounding these two buildings was practically wilderness leaving them totally isolated for many years until John Woody was instructed by the superintendent of the school to make a path to the old train depot, where Market crosses Guilford College road today. The woods have undergone an immense amount of change since the founding of this school by the Religious Society of Friends.
If you visit the woods today, you will be guided through a maze of paths. You may follow the wide path that leads you around the full circumference of woods along it’s borders. You may choose at any time to divert inwards to the heart of the woods following small narrow paths that take you around trees and over hills. You may come across evidence of previous human activity such as stone fire pits, old carvings in large old trees, a painted stone wall, some bridges, some old benches or some art. These are forms of material evidence of history but these woods have many years of history embedded in their existence. Guilford was designated as a Historic District by the National Park Service with the woods having it’s own section of historical importance. Among the most important aspects is the abolitionist actions taken by the community’s Quaker pacifists, including Levi Coffin (1798- 1877), legendary Father of the Underground Railroad. If you follow Nathan Hunt Road into the woods, turn left into the woods following the high path to the right for 0.3 miles you will eventually come to the signature “Underground Railroad Tree.” This tree is a Tulip poplar dating back to before the 1800 was a silent witness to the lives and actions of African Americans (enslaved and freed), their white allies including some Quakers from New Garden Friends Meeting as well their enemies who didn’t believe slavery should end. Despite current reputation, not all Quakers during that time were willing to sacrifice their status to aid emancipated slaves. Quakers have made this land their own whether it was right of them to do so or not. Many trees have died and have been born since it’s occupation by the Saura and Keyawee people but the large tulip poplar has stood strong through it all.