Wade, who’s 44, grew up wandering the woods by his family’s house near French Creek. “When you find something you like, it comes naturally,” he says. “Tree names and characteristics stick to me.” He was ROTC at Penn State, then in the Army: “My plan was to put in 20 years, retire, and open a surf shop.” But military advancement proved slow, so he got out and into the landscape business. He was working at Our Lady of Angels convent in Aston when a co-worker who had taken a course at Tyler Arboretum said she thought the nunnery might harbor a champion tree. Wade had never heard of champion trees. “We went to Tyler and bought the book”—Big Trees of Pennsylvania, which lists the measurements of all the winners. It turned out the convent had five state champs, including a bitternut hickory, a saucer magnolia and a European copper beech. Wade was hooked.
He just got the proofs for the 2011 edition of Big Trees. He signed on as editor for the previous edition, in 2006. Shortly after helping to launch the website Pabigtrees.com, he became a stay-at-home dad to his three kids, now 12, 11 and five. “I was sort of bored,” he says. He’d been giving big-tree tours at Longwood and eventually took a part-time job measuring and cataloging trees there, all the while maintaining Pabigtrees.com, which is searchable by genus and county. “If the state champion white oak is way out in Clarion County, you’re not likely to visit it,” says Wade. “But if there’s a champion in the next town over from you, maybe you’d go see that.” Anyone can nominate potential champions at the website; Wade or a state forester measures those that look promising.
He hopes to keep putting out new editions of the book ($15 at local arboretums) every five years. It’s underwritten by donors—Longwood, Haverford College, Bartlett Tree Experts, and private folks, including Wade. Given that none of this except the Longwood cataloguing is paid work, I ask if Wade’s got family wealth. He’s perplexed. “My wife and I,” he says—she’s a financial analyst for CBRE Clarion Securities—“are the first in our families to go to college. She does pretty well, but we don’t have money.” Big trees are his hobby. “Could be coin-collecting,” he says. “Could be skiing. That’s really expensive.”
WADE PARKS—illegally—at a turn-in off Route 1, and we wade through marauding Japanese stilt grass—“I hate this stuff!”—toward the Lafayette Sycamore. Actually, there are two Lafayette Sycamores—this, and one in Valley Forge Park. Legend has it the young French general sheltered here after he was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine. We measure the circumference. “Wow, it’s grown a lot!” Wade says—from 21 feet the last time he was here to 23.4.
The sycamore is hollow and beat-up—“Most champions are”—and sports lightning protection: braided copper wires running from a lightning rod at the top down to the ground and then away from the trunk, out beyond the edge of the canopy. Every five years, the braids have to be updated, or the bark grows over them. Maintaining a tree like this isn’t easy, or cheap.
Trees die. That’s a shame, but it’s the only way to know their age. A while back, a big oak by Wade’s kids’ soccer field fell. Though 19 feet around, it was only 74 years old: “I was so surprised when I counted the rings,” he says. Tree rings don’t just prove age; they also record climate. Wade shows me on a stump: Narrow rings are drought years, and wide ones are good years. The most rings he ever counted were on a white oak stump in Yeadon: 333.
It’s strange to think of Lafayette lying here, bleeding. The tree must have been big even then. Wade points out the tracks of old Baltimore Pike, deep in the grass. Wagon wheels and hooves made those ruts, century after century. The sycamore watched, the whole time.
BACK IN THE JEEP, driving toward Longwood Gardens, Wade cranes as we pass a massive sycamore behind the Chadds Ford Township building: “That’s not looking so good.” He would have made a great pioneer, like Conrad Weiser: moving through those dark, scary forests, noticing the big burr oak there, the fungus on the ground, the stray seeds. There’s only so much pioneering a stay-at-home dad with three kids can do, though.
At Longwood, he parks and leads me to a misshapen mess of branches. “This used to be the national champion white mulberry,” he says. “It’s dying. As are we all.”
If Wade didn’t do what he does, who knows if anyone else would? When he first took over the big-tree list, he noticed that one guy was responsible for many of the nominations: Rick Koval. He was the Colonel Kurtz of big-tree hunters: “Nobody knew anything about him. I finally tracked him down with the Internet.” Wade pauses. “He told me he just isn’t into it anymore. It was sort of disappointing to contact him.”
But not as disappointing as the vacation Wade just spent in Jackson Hole. “There were, like, five species of trees—two deciduous and three evergreens.” He shakes his head in pity. “I told the guys there: That’s it? That’s all the species you have?”