Into Deep Water with Tom Z

It’s a perfect summer day in western Connecticut, where Tom Zetterstrom still lives at the edge of an ideal town, Canaan. He’s the lord of nearby Rattlesnake Hill. We’ve been friends for 50+ years.

Long ago I nearly landed a job on the Berkshire Eagle, one of the great newspapers still filled with in-depth local news. I hung out and hiked all over these affable mountains before finally settling briefly in what’s left of rural New Jersey, then onto the Ozarks.

It’s the same ol’ Tom, full of energy, his concerns and opinions. First he wants to check out our truck that hauled Cath and me along smaller highways into the eastern metroplex.

“Not bad,” he approves of our used Chevy Colorado. “I’m lucky to get 20 MPG in my old van. And it looks like you can haul more crap.”

Very proud of his Hubbard squash, already huge in mid-August. Still in the same modest farmhouse and surrounding land inherited from his parent, this place feels weathered into soft perfection.

“Let’s get in a swim, the sun’s just right!”

We hike down three switchbacks several hundred yards to the water-filled quarry.

Can’t walk around here without thinking back to working with Olle, his dad, a first generation Swede, arborist, carpenter and lots of other stuff undoubtedly around these prosperous Berkshire mountain communities. Tom began work as his tree monkey while still a teenager.

Like 100’ up in these giant New England elm, pine, hemlock and others. I hauled cut branches into the back of Olle’s truck for a day or two. Couldn’t help but look up with amazement at Tom’s skill with a chainsaw high in the sky. I had known him mainly as a serious art student determined to get CO status rather than go to Vietnam or pay a doc to write up some report to get him free of the draft.

Plenty of work waited the Zetterstrom crew as elms were dying all over New England. Because of Dutch elm disease, many town greens lost their crowing glories of ancient foliage.

Tom’s 2-acre quarry glimmers as the center of his summer. In previous years Cathy and I have been able to stay in the nearby tiny Love Shack. For a longer visit we were hosted in the one-room cabin where Tom initially settled after doing alternative service teaching photography in the inner city of Washington, D.C.

“The sun’s still shining on my dock, it’ll warm you up,” Tom promises. “I’ve got a diving rock just perfect for getting into the quarry this afternoon.

At first I hold back. We’ve been driving for three days from Red Boiling Springs TN where we met friends to experience a perfect solar eclipse. Tom says he’s been using ropes and a saddle to lower himself down the quarry walls to get rid of vines and invasive species threatening to cover looming rock faces.

“I had to haul dozens of wheelbarrow loads of muck from around these rocks to create a safe place to get in the water,” he says. The quarry has become an informal sculpture garden complete with floating docks and carefully arranged giant stones.

Any chance we can see some recent photography?

“Lately I’m mainly trying to show invasive species for my talks. People need to know these plants or they’ll take over. Many invasive can out-compete native plants.”

He’s dealing with community forestry issues in the southern Berkshires. His Elm Watch project is on the back burner; in part because new elm hybridized varieties are not living up to promise.

More tree photography exhibits are in the works, he states. One in Massachusetts this autumn, another out West is being planned.

No more talk. Tom shows Cathy where to stand to get the shot to show what the quarry is all about.

She gives the count, one-two-three… in we jump!

The water feels as perfect as the late afternoon sun. All that driving washes away in the chill. So glad Tom is both a tree-hugger and a connoisseur of the finer things in life.

Experience Tom and Alex’s dive in a 30 second video

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