June 01, 2020

By RACHAEL BLAINE || PHOTOGRAPHY BY GORDON WENZEL

Traversing the sidewalks at the intersection of the most historic buildings on campus, one might notice a small pond.

Scarcely visible when the surrounding trees are fully dressed in their foliage, the pond to the left of Steele Hall is home to goldfish that flit under floating lily pads. Slick green frogs squat on bordering rocks waiting for their next meal.

Like many landmarks on a campus with more than 160 years of history, this little pond has a story, even though it has no official name…

THE FERN GARDEN

To many it was known for years as Steele Pond due to its proximity to Steele Hall. Donated to the university by the Pennsylvania Chiropractic Association, it first appears in Lanthorn yearbooks in 1930 as a square pond centered by a small fountain.

Subsequent yearbooks indicate that the pond evolved over the years, with the fountain eventually disappearing.

When John Clark ’86 arrived at Susquehanna, the area around the little pond had become overgrown, no longer the attractive quadrilateral basin but not yet the beloved Fern Garden that Clark would create.

In his late 30s, Clark was the elder statesman among his young classmates when he arrived as a student in the 1980s.

“John was a thin, slightly rumpled, talkative man with a huge personality, funny sense of humor,” classmate Patty Schneider ’90 Cote recalls. She says he was also “intensely passionate for all things plants and wildlife.”

Jack Holt, professor of biology at Susquehanna, remembers Clark as a bit of a rascal.

“He would take notes on a single 3-by-5 card, and once he filled both sides of that card, he’d quit taking notes and just listen,” Holt says with a laugh. “But he caught on fire when it came to plants.”

Clark particularly loved ferns, including the ones that grew around Susquehanna’s little pond.

By the time Clark enrolled at SU, the area around the pond had become overgrown and had fallen into disrepair. The facilities department was planning to fill it in.

Clark didn’t want to see that happen, and neither did Holt. Holt had become good friends with his student, who was about eight years his senior.

“I went to facilities and said, ‘Let us at least try to fix it up.’ And they let us,” Holt says.

This project became known as the Campus Arboretum Project. Holt, Clark, Cote and some other students took it upon themselves to spruce up the little pond and make it look less like a man-made ornamental pond and more like a naturally occurring body of water.

“We tried to create an area in the middle of campus that would house most of the native ferns and fern-allies in Pennsylvania,” Holt says. “John spent an enormous amount of time making pockets of earth and rock outcrops that corresponded to the requirements of particular fern species. Within a year, he began to supply a trickle of plants, then more and more until he had created an island of native plants in the middle of the campus.”

They surrounded it with large rocks and planted additional trees and ferns, some of which are still there today.

“We planted it with native plants to illustrate they can be used and be just as beautiful as plants from China or Japan,” Holt says.

He says Clark was an accomplished field biologist by the time he graduated in 1986.

“John had turned around … and become my teacher,” Holt recalls, his voice beginning to trail off. “He taught me so much.”

Beyond the roots Clark planted in “the fern garden,” he put down his own in the central Susquehanna Valley, networking with state offices for the protection of the area’s special plants. He became an expert in plants native to Pennsylvania and was passionate about protecting them.

It was through his work with the Merrill W. Linn Land & Waterways Conservancy, which preserves land and waterways of Union and surrounding counties in Pennsylvania, that Clark met Kate Hastings, professor of communications at Susquehanna. She and Clark worked together on several grant applications that led to the preservation of more than 20 acres of wetlands in Union County.

“John was a storyteller,” Hastings says. “He wouldn’t just say, ‘That’s an Adiantum.’ He would tell you when it was first identified and where you can go on a hike if you want to find a large population of them. He found peace in nature.”

Clark continued his work with the Linn Conservancy, earning its lifetime achievement award in 1998, the year before he died at age 55.

“We talked about the past and future of the Susquehanna Valley as he lay dying of lung cancer,” Holt recalls. “He implored me to make sure that his plant collections, his books and his notes would be put to good and fruitful use.”

A PLACE OF PEACE

After Clark’s death, the pond sat largely undisturbed, and once again nature encroached. This time, Holt was slower to intervene.

“I backed away,” Holt says. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It reminded me too much of John.”

But last summer, 20 years after Clark’s death, Holt returned to the pond, clearing away overgrown brush and installing a pump to aerate the stagnant water — the funds for which were donated by Cote.

“So much has changed since I graduated, but the pond is still there. It makes my heart happy,” Cote says. “Any time I am on campus during the day I have to walk by and check it out. It’s like saying hi to an old friend.”

Holt planted Salvinia, an aquatic fern, and coontail, an aquatic plant. He also stocked the pond with largemouth bass, fathead minnows, frogs and mud turtles.

“One thing John would be really mad about is that I put goldfish in the pond. They’re not native,” Holt says with a quiet laugh, then crouched down to brush the delicate leaves of a fern. “Certainly, the earth is a better place for his having been here. I can think of no better epitaph for a naturalist.”

Editor’s note: This story includes firsthand accounts as well as excerpts from Students of Nature , written in 1999 by Jack Holt, Ph.D. Click here to read his tribute and comparison to John Clark in its entirety.