Spirit(s) of Guilford Woods

4/13/19

A common rumor on our campus warns of spirits lurking about the woods. The Guilford woods, in the 1800s, was an active part of the Underground Railroad, offering a wooded refuge to escaping former slaves and, as our predominantly white institution is quick to add, “their white allies, including many Quakers from New Garden” who were escaping the confederate draft. To commemorate this, the college has designated a specific tree on which to so capitalize: a brisk .3 mile walk East of the Guilford lake leads to a brand-new “viewing platform” of bright plywood, constructed around the tree. The tulip poplar’s claim to fame is simply that it’s old, and that, according to Guilford’s webpage in its honor, it is a “silent witness” of the souls’ journey.

Many disagree with the platform, particularly those inclined to listen to the spirits of the woods. They claim that the college claims that an environmentalist of some sort claims that the tree needed the platform, and that the foot traffic around the tree played an integral role to its hill’s erosion. The more spiritually adept also claim that the tree claims that it’s bullshit, and that the once-human spirits despise the structure, its makers, and its users.

People are warned, by the aforementioned spiritually adept, not to enter the woods at night. The spirits are shy, they say, and so darkness is inherently denser with such entities. Spirits, not ghosts, for “ghost” holds a connotation that the would-be ghosts detest. The goal is to be in relationship with them, to talk to them. You don’t want to offend.

Other spirits originate from the revolutionary war. A common tale says Dana Auditorium, Guilford’s main venue, is built upon the cite of a Revolutionary War field hospital. A soldier who died there, dubbed Lucas, is said to wander the halls around two in the morning. A previous research project of mine led to the conclusion that Lucas is actually Lewis Ricks, who died in the scattered Battle of New Garden that ran along our campus and West Friendly Avenue on the morning of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. According to a book of the Ricks genealogy, Lewis “was a Quaker and did not believe in shedding human blood, and it was said by his brother William, who was in the battle with him, that he stuck his gun into the ground and went into the battle without his arms, and that was the last seen of him by his brother.” Lewis is friendly, here to help.

The surrounding few miles hold the death sites of countless. I find it difficult to wander in the Guilford woods without considering the spirits around me, tangible or only memory, recognition or knowledge. As recently as within the past twenty-five years, unmarked graves have been discovered in the fields surrounding New Garden Meeting House— how many must the woods hold?

A spooky-looking stagnant pond in the Guilford woods, adjacent to the main trail.

Transplanted Wilderness

3/9/19

Frankly, I do not know how to even begin to interweave the natural history of a place into a assumedly free-form “journal” entry. “Journal” implies that this contains my thoughts, my reflections, et cetera. I do not find myself often thinking “the last time the Guilford woods was logged was in XXXX.” Although valid to require natural history, I have trouble “naturally” incorporating this knowledge, learned through research specific to this task, into an intentionally free form, for this transforms it from “task” to “assignment,” “assignment” to “grade,” “grade” to “value,” and I do not wish to have the value of my experience in the natural world determined by knowledge of its history. The experience of a natural space has, in my experience, relied far more on the actual experience of it than an intrinsic knowledge of its species, its general history. To claim otherwise is to say that one cannot enjoy a natural space without this knowledge.

Anyways.

The Guilford woods aren’t exclusive to the land they occupy. There’s a spirit within them, tangible or not, that often follows. Or, rather, there’s a spirit we place in the woods, and that it follows is simply us taking our own perceptions with us.

More literally, I wonder about the boundaries of a forest, and their potential for growth. It seems to me that forests are named and shrunken, and because the opportunity is never present, we never get a chance to consider the spreading of their boundaries. Given the sentimental, personification-inclined individual that I am, I find myself comparing such growth to a family dynasty. If a forest were transplanted, every species of every plant, animal, etc., to a virtually identical non-human environment that was previously infertile (i.e. unnamed) would the wilderness retain the same name?

Although entirely implausible, I find this logic sound enough to go on as truth in my mind. That being said, my room is an extension of the Guilford woods, adorned with potted plants transplanted from various areas of the woods: in one window hangs an ebony spleenwort fern, in the other an akebia vine, on my desk a wild violet, and in the windowsill a flourishing weed that took over a lavender plant.

In an increasingly technological world, one that deems blogging the most appropriate manner in which to write your reflections on the natural world, I find it difficult to make time exclusively dedicated to an appreciation of the natural world. Although I live a stone’s throw from an impressive expanse of relative wilderness, I am often subdued by the humming fluorescent lights, the glaringly pale walls, the speakers, car horns, et cetera. Transplanting the Guilford woods twenty feet, into my home— reclaiming the land developed in 1990 at the inception of where I now live— brings it closer to obtainability.

My flourishing unidentified weed (left), which I came to love, and my withered wild violet.

A Brief Encounter

3/24/19

I sit on top of a rotting mountain of leaves with my head resting on a trash bag full of more mountain. I am alone, and have plants to pot. I watch the sky.

Over the sporadic shouts from nearby disc-golfers, I hear an earthly thunder, hoofbeats multiplied and echoed, coming from the East. I watch as a white-tailed buck gallops into view, next to the stream below, and hurdles up the hill. I turn and see it cross the trail at full speed, and it disappears into the trees.

Then another. And another, and another, until an entire herd is stampeding in front of me, careening up and over the trail, through the trees opposite.

I raise my phone to record the spectacle (forgive me, I know), and for a full thirty seconds it continues. Dozens of deer, more than I’ve ever seen at one time, hurtle through my field of vision, up, over the trail, and away.

It isn’t until they vanish from sight, their hoofbeats still fading, that the reason for their exodus is made clear: a black Labrador, large for its breed, bounds by the creek and follows, over the path, and away. I realize my phone wasn’t recording and I lower it, watch the leaves settle back into relative silence.

The view from the rotting leaf-mountain.
A sweet gum fruit, which I suppose is calming enough to fit this story.

Art Show

4/3/19

On today’s walk, I fantasize about an art show featuring the decades of student contribution to the woods. Students current and past, maybe even deceased, standing by their pieces. It’s often difficult to find a single spot in the woods completely absent of some creative addition.

Among the most notable are: the skeleton of a desk and chair, long decayed, fastened thirty feet up an oak tree; an altar-like assortment of mirrors, clay figurines, and painted glass that’s only visible in the warmer months, freed of the forest’s detritus; various handcrafted wind chimes that, like the desk, are placed at an inexplicable altitude; the ruins of some wall or dam, now serving as a canvas to the unskilled graffiti artist; et cetera.

Another gallery in the art show would be dedicated to student forts. There is Kai’s Fort, named after a former student that someone surely knew, which isn’t really a fort but more a felled tree with a fire pit adjacent. There is the Bomb Shelter, an ancient waist-high triangle of stacked logs littered with beer cans with outdated labels, the ground inside littered with long-decayed cigarette butts. Its roof is caving in and the earth below it has turned to either puddle or slow-moving stream. There is the Gnome Home, a large teepee-style structure ringed with intricately laced vines and strings, many supporting dangling bits of glass, braided thread, flowers real and fake. Its name is etched into a nearby poplar, doming the hat of an impressively detailed gnome. Recently the fort part of the Gnome Home fell, and the branches were repurposed into more secure walls.

The show would feature student art at its prime. The Gnome Home would tower above its spectators, the Bomb Shelter would serve as such, Kai would explain that Who really defines a fort? A student (alum?) would work at their desk, thirty feet up. The breeze would always catch the wind chimes exactly right.

The art of the woods is the art of Guilford, and the art of Guilford is often the art of the woods. These installations, although not strictly natural, give the land much of their character as it is now known. To me, and to many students on the four-year cycle, I would assume, the state of the woods redefines “natural.” It was like this when I found it, and within four years it couldn’t possibly transform too drastically. Perhaps it is the impossibility of knowing the source of each thing’s creation, the solidity in their existence in this place. A structure, work of art, could have been built the morning I stumble upon it, and I could accept it as old as time.

The Gnome Home’s inscription (owner?)
The Bomb Shelter

Elevator Music

4/14/19

It isn’t a symphony that I hear in the Guilford woods, as Gordon Hempton has found in the wilderness of Olympic National Park, but rather the melody of a naturalistic elevator, weaving its way in and out of the pines. I visualize the sound as a kind of blanket, gently easing down through the skylit canopy. My synesthesia finds me at a common perch, the lookout mentioned in a previous entry, flat on my back and imagining, watching, this blanket ease over the forest.

I’ve never learned the linguistic difference between “woods” and “forest,” and I do not intend to; each definition, assumedly, relies on unique geographical and biospheric details that do not appeal to my current usage. My consideration of this place solely relates to my own experience, and therefore if it feels like a forest, it’s a forest.

The sounds of the woods are many. Close by are birds singing, water flowing, the winds pushing through the trees; further are car horns bickering, lacrosse boys yelling, porch-side speakers boasting their owners’ musical taste.

I spread my belongings around me, giving place to the location: a kindle, a laptop (sacrilege, yes, but this is a blog), a journal, its pen, a nalgene. Also my drone, a recent purchase comfortably within the confines of a minimum-wage student-worker position. The drone has a camera with the resolution of deep-sea fish (read: bad), but I am nevertheless entertained and intent on using it for a purpose that could pass as productive.

The symphony fading to elevator music, I set the toy up and send it into the air. It buzzes about, careening from side to side, and the screen of my phone follows a reliable one-mississippi behind. I send it over the edge (slope) of the lookout, buzz it around a bit, have it return. I take it to Shit Hill, send it down, over the stream (why hasn’t anyone called it “Shit Stream?”), across the man-made meadow. I lose control, either my fault or the machine’s, watch it collide with a branch, drop, stay. The screen shows a beautiful landscape of leaves and the invasive akebia quinata that blankets the area, and so it stays until my companion spies it from the ground and I shake it loose.

As I do, I consider that there may be others nearby, writing a blog about the natural world, this natural space, recording its voice. That recording may now be forever plagued by the insufferable whir of my toy.

Well.

Scene from a cheap toy #1: Shit Hill
Scene from a cheap toy #2: more Shit Hill
Scene from a cheap toy #3: the sky above Shit Hill
Scene from a cheap toy #4: the view from the crash after Shit Hill

Housesitting

3/19/19

I’m housesitting, and a Carolina Wren lies by the window of the screen door on my grandparents’ porch. Its eyes either closed or slurped out by insects that fit through the screening. A minute pang follows that consideration; they’re closed.

I water plants, check the thermostat, make sure I didn’t track in dirt. I retrieve a newspaper bag from my grandmother’s quintessential grandmother-bag-stash. I go to the porch, my hand in the bag, a sanitary glove. Death is messy.

A shovel is in the shed, and then a hole is in their backyard. A root is severed, and it wasn’t a metaphoric umbilical cord. The wren is placed in the hole, sprinkled with birdseed and flowers from a traveling grandmother’s garden. The hole is filled in, a brick placed on top, more senselessly sentimental birdseed, more flowers, placed in each of the brick’s three holes.

A week later, when the plants need watering, the grave has been robbed. The brick lies like a desolate bridge across the grave, the hole beneath riddled with claw marks. I don’t dare search for the corpse, for its eyes were closed.

Drew Lanham killed a sparrow and I killed a dead wren. I think of blogging and take an unnotable photograph.

Later, a red ant drowns in a small, flooded pit in the woods, a sinkhole maybe. A friend and I watch it, remorselessly call it a spider. I take a video, my mind again swimming with thoughts of blogging, and rescue it in return for its performance. Do ants have actor’s guilds?

Drew Lanham killed a sparrow, Johnny Cash killed a lone rider, I killed a dead wren, and I recorded a then-dying ant. Would Lanham have filmed the sparrow’s death, if given the chance?

The Guilford Woods– Yet Again!

2/22/19

A gathering place for freshman bonfires (for where else would they go?), an earthy rival to a treadmill, a wooded canvas of self-reflection, a home of debated ghosts and ghouls and whatnot galore, (the subject of countless student projects). The sentiment rings tired, but true: the woods stand as a resolute and prided feature of our community, perhaps the last thing left untouched by the myriad critiques of Guilford College.

I aspire for my study of the Guilford wilderness to include, if not focus on, the careful observation of intimate places within the broader area, be them places of my own, those of others, or those who are surely intimate to some but whose designation I have no way of knowing.

Firstly, a felled tree bridging the the widest bit of a pitiful stream that crawls parallel to the main path. (Spare me, those few readers more cartographically inclined; this program has a glorious edit button, and I shall return.)

I know not what species my beloved is, but I’ll eventually find this out and edit it back in– for that would surely prove an enticing detail. (Again spare me, tree enthusiasts.)

My fondness for this wooden corpse arises from a two-week period of 2017 (class years are such a bore!), in which I devoted myself to, for some ungodly reason, the idea that I was to be a runner. Each day for these curséd two weeks, I’d huff and puff down and around the the common trail, find myself by the log, The Log, and, swayed by the respiratory benefits, decide I was in dire need of meditation.

I perched, scooted out a bit so I was directly above the centerpoint of the creek, and closed my eyes for a time. A practice of natural connection, rooting, re-rooting, myself to my earth, I’d even go so far as to utterly disconnect from the modern world; I placed my phone on the log, a few feet to my left (speak nothing of the dry earth beneath it).

As I sat, meditated, breathed in the natural purity of the earth–a few hundred yards away lies a slope that students fondly refer to as “Shit Hill,” which is rumored to be particularly fragrant on days that the cafeteria remembers its deep-fryer– other woods-goers would pass, joggers with true destiny, and stare at the large, sweaty man sitting cross-legged on a gnarled log over a shit-frothing stream, in clear view of, and a rough meter away from, the popular trail.

Much of this is speculation, of course, for true meditation, true breaks to catch your breath, rely on utter dissociation: my eyes were closed and the water too loud to hear the footsteps.

During my first few trips, it was just this– the water was too loud, I was focused on regaining my ability to breathe. However after several days, or perhaps after a single, particularly loathsome day, I found myself actually listening, not to footsteps of judging passerbys, but to the water itself. Not to my body’s feeble desire for oxygen, but to my breath, my breathing.

Once this habit took hold, I’d find myself startled by the sound of footsteps, echoing in the ethereal. The randomness, the peculiarity, of the sound of fellow humans, let alone collegiate peers, affected me in that I had no concept of the event’s frequency; that I noticed these footsteps, just now, seemed like utter coincidence, who knew how many people had passed.

First Post– Joseph

My father’s backyard holds a broken-down pool that functions now as a small pond. Over the past decade, the pond has hosted a small, assorted fleet of turtles, every spring a mountain of freshly-hatched toads, and, in turn, a particularly hungry heron. Joining them have been two bullfrogs, one water moccasin, a growing school of minnows (a university, perhaps?), several stranded ducklings (and their worried parental unit, squawking above), and the particularly vicious snapping turtle with the misshapen shell that devoured them. etc.

I couldn’t find a photo:/

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1tOfYOwqIaP61WYQDYV3YAhWrvOReZcjb&usp=sharing