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.


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.


photo credit: Mary Luckhaus

Follow the topic trail

Two months into grad school to study writing and editing I discovered commonplace books and fell in love. I started out


Throwback Thursday

looking into the ways they feed creative output and moved into the history of the genre and the ways the genre split and fed other social forms. I discovered a group of Quaker women in colonial Philadelphia who got together for teatime and commonplacing. Thoreau and Emerson got involved when I read their shared commonplace book. The subject snowballed into material book culture, reading habits, and brain science.

It was my first semester back in school, and I initially chose this topic because I wanted an overlapping topic to use for my two seminar papers. In one class I studied the Quaker women and their writing, and in the other I studied the genre in a more holistic manner.

For the two years that followed, I pulled more and more into this topic, and towards the end of my program I wrote a nonfiction book proposal. Today I’ve started pulling out files and putting some thoughts together.

Fun fact: Women in colonial Philadelphia (as well as in other places) raised silkworms to support the colonies in their fight for independence. By producing silk and other fabrics, they reduced the need to buy from England. Only tangentially related to commonplace books, but still interesting I think.

July 1749, from a magazine titled

July 1749, from a magazine titled “Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure”

In fact, the trail of topics is precisely what makes a commonplace book interesting, entertaining, and useful. Who out there keeps a commonplace book? Who wants to start one?