Forest Forensics: A Wolf Tree Tells a Tale


wolf tree at Schuylkill Center
wolf tree at Schuylkill Center

While walking through a forest,  the scorned trees and deadfall trees tell tales.  The tree pictured above lives in the forest of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.

Forest Forensics Observation

Look at the ways in which the branches spiral around the tree in all directions. The trees in the background are smaller, thinner and obviously younger than the larger tree in the center. The younger trees also are smooth and branch-less almost to the top of the tree.

What does this tell us?

  1. The large center tree is older than the surrounding  trees.
  2. It grew without many trees around it. How do we know this? Because the branches are on each side of the tree, which means it grew without others trees crowding it around it.
wolf tree at Schuylkill Center
wolf tree at Schuylkill Center

Wolf (Pasture) Tree

This tree is a pasture tree or a “wolf tree”. Wolf? I don’t know why, I think because it grew alone, like a lone wolf.. So, this tree was probably a tree in a pasture with no other trees surrounding  it. It was left standing to shade cows, sheep or other livestock on hot summer days.

We can tell in grew in full sunlight by the outward growing limbs. If it was surrounded by other trees the limbs would face upward, reaching for the small amount of light available in the crowded canopy.

These wide-spreading trees grow in pasture not along a fence line. I’ve seen trees that grew along fence lines with pieces of wire embedded in the trunks. I didn’t find any wire embedded in the tree.

The tree also grew in a pasture not a field of grain because if it had popped up in such a field it would have been cut down or removed, because if it was left to grow it would no longer have been a good place to grow grain.

lone pasture tree
Lone pasture tree (Mansfield England). Photo: Pasture, Manfield by Andrew Smith, Wikimedia Commons.

Former Villages, Farms, and Pasture Lands

The Schuylkill Center was farmland until the 1950s. It is odd to think of it but the northwest section of the city of Philadelphia was covered with farms during the 1920s and end to the 1950s.

The Schuylkill Center is located just off of Ridge Avenue. The road is called “Ridge Avenue” because the land is a ridge. One side facing west is the Wissahickon Valley Forest Park, then the Ridge, and then the east side is rocky hilly, land (the Schuylkill Center). Keep going west and you run into the Schuylkill River, which flows into the Delaware River, which flows into the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Before the European-American farms, the Ridge was dotted with Lenape Native American villages and agricultural fields and gardens. They were wonderfully situated. The Wissahickon Valley and the Schuylkill Center forest were used as hunting grounds. The fish and crustacean filled waters which drew many waterfowl were a short distance away. It is no wonder the arriving Europeans coveted the land.

I think the land, the Ridge-Wissahickon area, was good for the simple, natural lifestyle of the Lenape. It didn’t work as well for the complicated industrialized lifestyle of the Europeans. For many reasons all the farms are now gone, replaced by subdivisions, retail stores, and city neighborhoods.

Knowing the History of the Land

When I drive or walk in the area, knowing how different groups of people live in the land helps to decipher the signs and reasons behind features of the land.

Below I listed two books which can help you decipher signs.

Works Consulted

These links are affiliate links. I may earn a commission for Amazon purchases using the links. This does not affect the price you pay.

Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels

The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast by Bruce Kershner and Robert T. Leverett At the time I write this, Nov. 2022), this book is listed for crazy prices on Keep a look out for it at used book sales). 

Here are other books on the topic. I haven’t read these.

Oregon’s Ancient Forests: A Hiking Guide by Oregon Wild

Hiking the Ancient Forests of British Columbia and Washington by Randy Stoltmann


More Posts Related to Forest Forensics

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Winter Animal Signs

Storing Food for the Winter (How to Hoard)

Updated post, originally published November 12, 2013.



  1. If you should find yourself near Deptford NJ, you need to check out the Clement Oak behind the Deptford Wal-Mart near Big Timber Creek. There are signs to lead you to the tree. They estimate it to have sprouted between 1555 and 1615. It is massive in girth and height. I noticed that at some point copper grounding conductors added to help protect the tree from lightning damage. Other than that, I bet few people know it exists.

    • Hi Mark, Thank you for the information. We can just imagine when massive trees were the norm.

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