Route 1 in Delaware County is a busy thoroughfare—so busy they’re adding lanes. That’s a problem for Scott Wade. He frowns through the windshield of his SUV as he barrels past a barren excavation site. “Oh boy,” he mutters. “I measured a lot of the trees they just leveled there.”
If the only time you notice trees is now, when their leaves change color, you’ll have trouble wrapping your head around Scott Wade. It can be a challenge even if you like trees. Because however much you like them, you don’t like them the way Wade does.
Take the hoary, rough-barked zelkova on the grounds of Delaware County Community College in Media. We’ve traipsed across a field to find it, only to discover an ugly brown gash in the earth just feet from its trunk. “Oh God, look what they did here,” Wade says. “People have no respect. They brought that sewer dangerously close to my tree.”
He turns in a sad circle, surveying the telltale signs of Growth And Progress. The college, built on an old estate, harbors five state champion trees—the largest of their species in all of Pennsylvania. And unless you were with Scott Wade, you’d never notice them. The weeping Norway spruce, the Japanese lilac, the Southern magnolia—they all just look like … trees.
The zelkova’s big, but not Sequoia National Forest big. To Wade, though, it’s crack cocaine. He’s the official keeper of the state’s champion tree list and website, Pabigtrees.com, and editor of Big Trees of Pennsylvania, just out in an updated 2011 edition. That means he spends his spare time looking for and measuring big trees—a labor of love, since his obsession doesn’t pay him a dime. “Zelkovas weren’t brought to this country until the 1840s, so this isn’t much more than 150 years old,” he says, patting the gray trunk hopefully. “They’re tough. Despite the damage from the sewer, it could rebound.”
The zelkova and all the rest are here because years ago, the Battles family, which lived here—you can still see two huge urns that adorned a terrace—did what rich folks all over the Delaware Valley did: They collected trees. They bought and traded seeds and saplings and laid out personal arboretums. Some of these collections are nothing more than ragtag remnants. Others are preserved in all their glory: the Tyler, Haverford, Morris and Scott arboretums, Longwood Gardens, Bartram’s Garden, Welkinweir, Chanticleer … Longwood, in particular, is a champion tree mecca. It’s got 61 state winners, thanks to Pierre du Pont’s penchant for exotic species. And Wade isn’t even done cataloging there yet.
There’s another reason for Philly’s unusual arboreal wealth. “Quakers are tree people,” Wade says. “Old Quaker estates typically have big trees.” They don’t, however, have old trees: “I hate it when people tell me they have a 600-year-old tree. There aren’t any.” Colonial settlers leveled Eastern Pennsylvania’s forests for lumber, firewood, charcoal to run iron furnaces, tannins to make leather. Upstate, a few patches of “old-growth” forest remain—Tionesta, Bald Eagle, Cook Forest. Everywhere else, the trees came down.
When Europeans got to the New World, “It was a dark, scary place, full of natives and cougars,” Wade says. Conrad Weiser, an 18th-century pioneer, claimed a squirrel could go from one end of the state to the other and never touch the ground. A new settler would clear-cut, then plant a fast-growing deciduous tree—sycamore, oak, tulip poplar—at the southwest corner of his house, for shade in summer and extra sunlight when leaves dropped in autumn. These are some of the oldest trees Wade finds.
It takes chutzpah to go tree-hunting. “I usually don’t ask permission,” he says, swinging into a Quaker retreat, Pendle Hill, in Wallingford. He parks his Jeep Commander where he pleases, and trespasses fearlessly. It helps that he’s funny and charming and looks a lot like Harrison Ford circa Witness. Champion trees couldn’t ask for a better champion.
We’re here to visit the state’s biggest American beech, on a dappled patch of lawn. It gets bigger as you get closer—much, much bigger, rippling up from the earth and spreading out into branches scarred by centuries of carved graffiti: arrows, hearts, initials, names.
Wade shows me how to measure a tree. First off, he takes the circumference at breast height. (Loggers measure at four and a half feet, presumably so they don’t have to reach up or bend down.) A tree gets one point per inch of girth; the beech is 262 inches around. Next he measures crown spread, pacing off from one end of the widest part of the tree’s canopy to the other: 101 feet. “It wouldn’t grow that wide in a forest,” he notes. There, trees grow upward, competing for sunlight. In a clearing on a lawn, they branch out. A tree only gets a quarter-point per foot of spread, to compensate.
Finally, he pulls out a laser range finder—a hunting tool—and pinpoints the top of the beech, 30 yards up. He uses a clinometer to compensate for the slope of the ground and the distance from the earth to his eye-level, doing the math in his head. “The ENTS came up with this way of calculating height,” he says. The acronym stands for the Eastern Native Tree Society, but it’s also the name of the tree shepherds in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga (and a nickname for society members). Wade says the ENTS focus on tall trees, not big trees; they perfected the tricky clinometer method of measuring. The beech earns another point per foot of height: 91. Grand total: 378 points. Pennsylvania’s biggest tree, a sycamore in Mercersberg, has 529.