Home » Zetterstrom's vision: The NCES Children's Arboretum

Zetterstrom's vision: The NCES Children's Arboretum

NORTH CANAAN — For most people, trees just sort of happen. Contrary to that is the arboretum, a carefully planned collection of trees. Arboretums are created for research and educational purposes, to help sustain genetic diversity and to enhance parks with their variety.

Twenty years ago, at the first Earth Day/Arbor Day celebration at North Canaan Elementary School, the big picture was mostly about preserving the environment. To the groups and individuals who donated memorial and honorary trees, it was about that snapshot in time, and taking it one tree at a time.

It began with a visionary, Joe Baldesseri. He is responsible for many of the trees along the town’s main roads and recreation areas, and for spurring an ambitious and knowledgeable group on the town beautification committee.

“I showed up at that first Arbor Day that he organized, and was totally impressed,” Tom Zetterstrom, founder of Elm Watch, said. “It got me started. I worked on it with Joe for a couple of years, then took over.”

Zetterstrom is also a visionary, with a very centralized focus.  

As a young child back in the 1950s, he watched his dad cut down the elms that formed tunneled passageways on the town’s village streets. The fast-spreading Dutch elm disease had claimed them all.

It affected him profoundly. He now counts among his life’s ongoing work being an accomplished tree photographer and founder of Elm Watch. The group is a decade into identifying and removing diseased elms and preserving the stately remaining ones in the Northwest Corner and well up into Massachusetts.

Most folks, especially children, have come to know him more informally as the “tree guy,” and that suits him just fine. He has come to think in terms of centuries, grasping the kind of extreme long-range planning needed when it comes to trees. He believes in investing in hardwoods and species that will endure, as opposed to ornamentals that may last only two or three decades. He is a among the rare breed that is not only willing to wait for gratification, but to proceed knowing the plan will stretch far beyond his own life span.

As the years have gone by, and the annual school tree plantings have worked their way around the grounds, Zetterstrom began to be able to call it what it had truly become: an arboretum.

Now, as maintenance of the older trees also becomes part of the plan, he is working on detailed documentation of each tree in the arboretum. The archive includes trees placed on neighboring Town Hall property.

In putting together the listing of pre-existing and new plantings, Zetterstrom was pleased to discover 30 different types of trees, both evergreen and deciduous, including two disease-resistant American elms. He has a list of up to 10 species he would like to add.

The Canaan Foundation has donated six trees. Others have come by the way of other local groups, NCES alumni, families and the school. The trees honor loved ones still with us and those gone, teachers, community leaders and this year’s 40th anniversary of Earth Day. A sweet gum planted in 2003 is the school’s “Friendship Tree.”

The plan includes phasing out trees that are not native to the region and are therefore not conducive to preserving the environment as a whole. The archive includes current tree diameters and heights, as well as projected mature heights. Many will grow to about 70 feet.

Making it kid friendly is part of the plan moving forward. Teachers are involving the arboretum in the curriculum. Sign posts, donated by Tallon Lumber, are being installed to provide a self-explanatory tour of the arboretum. A map drawn by local artist Robin Cockerline was unveiled at the April 30 Arbor Day celebration.

Of course, Zetterstrom also understands the value of looking back, learning from the past and discovering the history the trees provide.

“Some of the wild apple trees near the school I believe are remnants of an old orchard there,” he said. “Then there is a white oak that may be a record-setter. It’s 36 inches in diameter.”

He conferred with George Kiefer in Salisbury, who is a font of historical knowledge.

“He believes it was a cross section of an oak taken from a tree in the [Salisbury Town] Grove. Based on records of that tree, and the size of this one, he thinks it could be as much as 300 years old.”

Of course, the only way to know is to cut it down and count the rings. Zetterstrom said the tree appears very healthy, and would be just as happy if it outlived him and he never knew for sure.

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