When I see the Guilford woods for the first time, I only go on the trails. It’s 2016, and I’m a recent transfer student. I’ve come from a school where there are no trees. There are no woods. There are roads. There are squirrels. The trees are young but their roots have not claimed the land yet. Here at Guilford, trees are everywhere. Not only in physical form, but in spirit: the t-shirts have trees, the school talks about core values and I can’t help but imagine them as roots. I’ll find out later that our tree, our roots, need tending. But now, I am new. Now I am exploring this new space.
The Underground Railroad tour is one of the first experiences many Guilford students have at the school. Today, there is a structure built to view the tree, made of a bright wood that you can see some ways away from the actual tree. (I am not sure what kind of wood it is, though I would like to ask. Is it made of the same wood as the trees around it? What is the story of these panels of wood; are they sibling to the trees that surround them? More on this, perhaps, in a later post.)
The Underground Railroad tree is famous for its age; it’s a tulip poplar that is over 200 years old. Its been in the woods we now call the Guilford Woods long enough to see the region change. Tulip poplars are a fast-growing tree; their leaves can be used for oil-blotting. It’s a small use, but it’s one that as a camp counselor I loved to share with the kids. (Careful though: you don’t want them rubbing poison ivy on their faces.) The wood of a tulip poplar is inexpensive but sturdy, often used in the sidings of homes.
The Underground Railroad tree, as a simple seed, had no reason to expect anything other than human interaction. There was no reason for this seed to believe it would grow to be the oldest tulip poplar in these woods; that it would be a monument to the horrific, long-lasting, still relevant issue of slavery and racism. It grew without knowing that it would keep growing, that it wouldn’t be stunted by humans in the same way its siblings were. How old was it when it first saw people running through the woods in pursuit of a freedom stolen from them on land stolen from another civilization? What did this seed expect? What did it get? What memories does this tree hold onto, and can we see it in the ridges in the roots, which spread out around the tree?
Upon my first tour of the Underground Railroad Tree, we were allowed to sit on its roots. There’s a small crevice in the tree that makes it the perfect sitting spot. It’s a tree that is wider than any I’ve seen before; certainly it is wider than any that I have come this close in contact to. Today, they ask that people do not walk on the roots. We want to preserve the tree; we want it to last forever, though we know that is impossible. This tree represents what Guilford College strives to be: wise, knowing, continuing to grow. James Shields, who lead the tour, began singing “This Little Light of Mine.” Students joined in. We sang together. I felt like I belonged there, with the trees, with the students, with the community.