Clark tree project takes root

Lynne Sorenson '86 in the black pine tree that stands outside the Little Center.

The October 29, 2011, freak snowstorm was a tree killer. Throughout the Northeast, thousands of snow-laden limbs — made extra heavy because the leaves still clung to them — crashed to the ground. Trees large and small were split like cordwood, many beyond saving.

In the days after the storm, the Clark green was littered with branches from end to end. Students joined Physical Plant employees to drag brush off the quad, gather the limbs and chip them into mulch.

The storm served as a reminder of just how fragile the landscape can be. But for some Clark students and faculty, it provided an opportunity to launch an initiative that could naturally transform parts of the University’s campus.

Click here to submit your photos and/or stories about Clark’s natural landscape.

Students in Biology Professor Susan Foster’s Conservation and Effective Practice course have mapped the campus trees using GIS technology as well as traditional maps, and have begun cataloguing them. They are documenting which trees were destroyed in the storm (for instance, the Bradford pears outside the Lasry Biosciences Building) and determining the location, size, age and species of the remaining trees using size, growth rates and historical images.

According to Foster, the goal is for students to create two plans: one of a historical nature that depicts where campus trees once stood, and a second plan that looks to the future, offering options for new plantings and the return of native species, and determining areas that could benefit from landscaping changes. The students have designed new landscaping for several areas on campus to illustrate just how the new plantings would alter the campus … arboreally speaking.

This Copper Beech, in front of the former president's house, was moved to make way for Goddard Library.

Across Maywood Street from the Lasry building, where her lab is located, Foster and her students look out on the little-used Kresge Quadrangle and envision more shade trees and an outdoor classroom complete with a chalkboard and granite podium.

Foster also enthuses over the “Lasry Rooms,” which would transform the lawn in front of the Lasry building into a series of outdoor “rooms” bounded by blueberry bushes, winterberries and evergreen shrubs of varying heights, connected by winding pathways. Tables set up in the rooms would allow for outdoor learning and provide places for folks to have lunch or simply relax.

Other recommendations call for replacing flowering dogwoods that were lost in the storm, greening the Charlotte Street field, creating a moss and wildflower garden in the Alden Quad and adding a voice to beautification efforts on Downing and Main streets. Foster also has been talking with the administration about the possibility of planting an American beech near the Academic Commons to help commemorate Clark’s 125th anniversary.

“We had a forum with students to get feedback on the things they’d like to see changed,” Foster says. “Our big goals are diversity, sustainability and beauty.”

In May, the students of Foster and professors John Baker and John Rogan held the Conservation and Effective Practice Poster Symposium in the Lasry lobby, highlighting their conservation research from Worcester to Mongolia. A display titled “Tree Stories” by students Morgan Atkinson ’13, Ariel Marion ’14 and Dina Navon ’14 provided some historical context to the trees on Clark’s campus, including some that are no longer standing.

One of the most famous was the stately Copper Beech, commonly known as “The Meeting Tree,” that loomed over the front yard of the former president’s residence. Past presidents would make announcements to the Clark student body who would gather beneath the tree to hear the news of the day. The beech was transplanted in the late ’60s to make way for the Goddard Library, but failed to thrive in its new location and eventually died.

As part of their research, the students are compiling a “tree history” for Clark — stories and photos of campus trees — that will help them gain information about the changing ecosystem at the University.

To accomplish this, an online survey has been created where alums can submit photos and/or stories about Clark’s natural landscape (the first submission is a picture of a Class of ’86 alumna sitting in the “Zen tree” outside the Little Center).

Marion said the plans for the future are straightforward. “We’re looking at long-term sustainability” with new plantings, she said. “We discussed what trees we’d like to put in and what fits best in certain areas.” Don’t expect to see any more of the ubiquitous Norway maples, a non-native species that Marion describes as a “weed tree.”

Added Navan, “If we don’t have a cohesive plan, we could lose a lot of what makes this campus beautiful.”

~ Jim Keogh, Director of News and Editorial Services