Local Quaker lands and stories

I’ve recently joined a walking group that meets on Wednesdays. We crossed paths on a September morning on the Palmetto Trail and struck up a conversation that led us to discover common friends and a shared interest in nature. Each week this group explores a different place, and one Wednesday in October we explored the New Garden Friends Meeting Cemetery and the woods over at Guilford College. Max Carter, whose mind is an encyclopedia of Quaker history, led the way. He wore his trademark sandals despite the weather, and we spent two fascinating hours under the wide open Quaker-gray sky that dripped rain off and on.

The familiar way he hopped around the cemetery from grave to grave showed his deep connection to the people whose lives played out on the same soil we walked on. We heard stories about Quaker families from Nantucket (such as the Starbuck family) and from other parts of North Carolina, families that moved south from Philadelphia then back north to Indiana to distance themselves from slavery. Non-Quakers, soldiers from both sides of major wars, mass graves, the Revolutionary oak tree, the cornerstones from the tiny schoolhouse—this cemetery offers a wide-angle lens on the long history of social justice advocated by Quakers.

Just across the street from New Garden Friends Meeting is Guilford College, once known as the New Garden Boarding School. The area was settled in the 17th century by Quakers who, according to Max, took care not to settle on land already being used by native people. The 300+ acres of old-growth forest have been a refuge for centuries, home to a variety of plants and animals that are mostly undisturbed. In centuries past, the woods were a safe haven for black people escaping slavery. Local women hung baskets of food from trees for them, and the Underground Railroad led them north to freedom.

Follow the paths through the woods and you’ll find yourself at what locals call the Underground Railroad tree, a tulip poplar with a five-foot girth, estimated to be hundreds of years old. (Here are directions to find the tree yourself.) This is the place where we ended our tour, soaked from the rain, drenched in local history, standing in awe at the power and persistence of this old tree and surrounding forest.

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We followed Max out of the forest and packed into our car. On the way back up to the main section of campus, I caught a glimpse of a white animal off to the side of the road, just in the woods.

My first thought was that its ears were from a deer, but the white, it was maybe a goat? “I just saw something odd …”

“What’d you see?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a goat? I don’t know, it was white, I wonder if it was a deer?”

We backed up the car and looked: a young albino deer was grazing the hill to the side of the road. Flanked by siblings, it was shy but not scared. We must have watched that white deer for nearly five minutes, as it worked its way deeper into the woods. In many cultures, white deer are considered sacred, as harbingers of change and messengers from the divine. So, it felt entirely appropriate that we’d experience this magical ending to our morning, to feel steeped in the refuge offered by Quaker grounds.

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photo credit: Mary Luckhaus

Hermit huts

This past summer I explored the California coast with my husband and our two teenagers. We flew into LA and headed north from there. For the first week it was an adventure a day: the Avila Adobe in historic Los Angeles, Ojai, Morro Bay, Silicon Valley, Tiburon, Mt. Tamalpais … miles of California landscape flew by each day as we made our way up to Trinidad in Humboldt county, where we spent the rest of our vacation time. From the heat and palm trees to the endless fields of greens and orchards of olive trees, sea otters and zebras, up towards field after field of grapes and into the land of the giant redwoods: we got to see a broad picture of life there on the west coast.

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  In two weeks, we couldn’t hope to see all there was. We had more suggestions and ideas than we had time, so we took things day by day and found the places that suited our mood and whims that day. And each day had a story to tell. I recorded bits of stories in travel journals, and I’m hoping to bring back memories of the stories we found on our west coast adventure, one short essay at a time.

Between San Francisco and Trinidad, we couldn’t resist stopping to see the Hermit Huts at Hendy Woods State Park. A relatively small park, Hendy Woods hosted a Russian immigrant named Petro Zailenko who lived alone in the woods for nearly two decades.

This was our first venture into the redwoods, and the forest swept us into a fairy tale for a few glorious, mysterious hours. Petro built his huts out of fallen limbs and burned out tree stumps, surviving on squirrels and whatever he could scrounge from surrounding farms and park visitors. He even dismantled shoes that he found, sewing them back together to make complete pairs in his own size. According to some articles posted in the park, he was satisfied with his lot in life and lived fairly comfortably, considering the circumstances. As romantic as it sounds to live in the woods, I imagine it was a tough life. It gets cold in those woods, and he had only what he could find in his limited area. Still, he had made peace with it, which I suppose is the best answer for anyone. His story is a reminder to us that gratitude is both possible and necessary. If he had plenty, so should we.