The Petrified Fern


Mary Bolles Branch

The Petrified Fern by Mary Bolles Branch, recited by Brigid Christison

Grew a little fern-leaf, green and slender,
    Veining delicate and fibres tender;
Waving when the wind crept down so low;
    Rushes tall, and moss, and grass grew round it,
    Playful sunbeams darted in and found it,
    Drops of dew stole in by night, and crowned it,
    But no foot of man e’er trod that way;
    Earth was young and keeping holiday.
Monster fishes swam the silent main,
    Stately forests waved their giant branches,
    Mountains hurled their snowy avalanches,
Mammoth creatures stalked across the plain;
   Nature revelled in grand mysteries;
   But the little fern was not of these,
   Did not number with the hills and trees,
   Only grew and waved its wild sweet way,—
   No one came to note it day by day.
Earth, one time, put on a frolic mood,
   Heaved the rocks and changed the mighty motion
   Of the deep, strong currents of the ocean;
Moved the plain and shook the haughty wood,
   Crushed the little fern in soft moist clay,
   Covered it, and hid it safe away.
   Oh the long, long centuries since that day!
   Oh the agony, oh life’s bitter cost,
   Since that useless little fern was lost!
Useless! Lost! There came a thoughtful man
   Searching Nature’s secrets, far and deep;
   From a fissure in a rocky steep
He withdrew a stone, o’er which there ran
   Fairy pencillings, a quaint design,
   Veinings, leafage, fibres clear and fine,
   And the fern’s life lay in every line!
   So, I think, God hides some souls away,
   Sweetly to surprise us the last day.

Mary Bolles Branch

Guest art by Fatema (Twitter: @fatty_box)

The petrified fern was submitted to us by Carl Mehling, and has been published in American poetry anthologies since it was first written in 1841. This poem focuses on how time and science may uncover the worth of something, such as a “useless little fern.”

This illustration accompanies A Petrified Fern in the anthology “Journeys Through Bookland, Vol. 7,” and was likely drawn by Helen F. Bradshaw Stevens, Edith Virden, or Frederick Grant.

The natural history of this poem

Though not the first land plants, ferns were one of the most successful plants early in the history of life on land, appearing sometime in the Middle to Late Devonian Period (387 to 359 million years ago). The poem references ferns living alongside larger plants and animals through history, but says that ferns were usually small and unremarkable. However, some ferns in the past grew to massive tree-like stature, and certain fern species today, such as the Norfolk tree fern, can grow to around 20 metres in height!

The poem also discusses fossilization, making note that the little fern looks like “fairy pencil-ing” and that much of the veins, fibres and other tiny details of the fern are still visible when you look at the fossil. Plants do not contain hard parts like bones or shells, and so do not fossilize in the same ways. Instead, they are fossilized most commonly as a carbonaceuous film, where the original organic material of the plant is compressed and transformed into a coal like residue (similar in appearance to pencil writing). Often these imprints preserve very fine details, giving us a perfect image of what the fossil organism looked like even down to the cellular level in some cases.

Mary Bolles Branch

Mary Bolles Branch – by Katrin Emery. Based on only existing portrait of her.

Not much is written about Mary Lydia Bolles Branch. She lived in New London, Connecticut, from 1840-1922, and was best-known as an author of children’s books. Her most famous book was called “the Kanter girls.” She was a descendant of the rich Hempstead family, who had lived in New London since the 1640s. Mary was quite involved in her community as a member of several colonial organizations, including the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. In the 1916, Mary gave a Halloween convocation speech for graduates at Connecticut College. According to the college newspaper, she told legends and stories of the history of the College to much delight and laughter. She told stories of old college pranks, Connecticut whalers, and of an “exciting” First Nations “romance,” which was more than likely reduced to stereotypes at best.

Mary’s daughter, Anna Hempstead Branch, was born in 1875 and went on to be a famous “poetess” in her own right. In 1911, Mary sold one piece of land to the the Connecticut College Arboretum, and Anna donated a second piece of land (that she’d gotten from her mother the day before) to be made into a park, named “Bolleswood” for Mary’s father.