July 2016, the summer before I started my journey at Guilford College, feels like a millennium away and yet, the place where we are is capable of grounding us in memories that seem distant, as if they only happened yesterday. It is a wondrous feeling to visit a space that you are yet to inhabit, I felt a strange dichotomy between imagining myself as a living, breathing piece of all these different locales that make a campus come alive, and also felt strangely out of sync in a space that has seen centuries of experience in historical, academic, and spiritual life, of which I was now a part.
My parents and I, as we tried to conceive of my life at Guilford, traversed from one end of the campus to the other, and finally, we drove down to the tree lovingly referred to as, “Mama Tree.”This was our first experience of the Guilford College Woods, also known as the New Garden Woods, located in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the United States of America. This tulip poplar behemoth had been a beacon of light for many African American slaves traveling the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses intended to guide them to freedom. This particular spot was established on the railroad by Levi Coffin, a native of Guilford County, North Carolina, and other fellow Quakers, who were staunch abolitionists, stemming from their religious beliefs that every person had the light of God in them. James Shields, the Director of Community Learning at Guilford College, described how one group of slaves had White slave catchers hot on their trail, but when they hid behind the tree, they could no longer be seen. Levi Coffin would even venture into the woods, with the purported excuse of feeding pigs, and provide fleeing slaves with food and supplies.
But the Tulip Poplar wasn’t the only tree to bear witness to this fight for freedom. 150 years ago, the forest was covered with thickets of pine trees, now replaced by elm and oak trees. The trees aren’t alone in this forest either, as white-tailed deer, groundhogs, and squirrels frequent this trail more than tour groups do. As we snapped pictures and reveled in the wonder of majesty and tranquility, we glimpsed a familiar friend, a bright red cardinal, specifically, a northern cardinal (for the avid avian adorers out there, simply saying that we saw a cardinal might be confusing, as there are many different types). This type of cardinal is what North Carolinians, like myself know as our state bird. It landed on a branch far above us, and I whistled at it. Surprisingly, it whistled back, and we went back and forth until my parents wanted to go. Much to my amazement, I managed to commune with an unofficial member of the Guilford College campus a month before my arrival on campus. I like to think of that bird as my first friend, but more importantly, looking back has given me the opportunity to understand what exactly I saw around me and immerse myself in it once more.