Carvings in the soft bark of aspen here and in Beaver Meadows, in the high country northeast of Bayfield, document the presence of the early-day shepherds who camped with their flocks in the summer.
The most common carvings are a name, a date and a place of origin. But more talented or more inspired carvers would add a horse, a bird or, (gasp) a naked woman.
Whatever the work of art, time is taking its toll on the carvings – called arborglyphs – which is what brings Ruth Lambert here.
Lambert, cultural program director at the San Juan Mountains Association, is winding up the field-work portion of a two-year study of the arborglyphs.
The project will expand on an inventory of aspen carvings conducted from 2000-03 that located about 1,000 arborglyphs on 700 trees here and in Beaver Meadows.
“Aspen live for 100 to 120 years, so time is running out,” Lambert said while leading a public tour on Oct. 5. “We have to document them while we can.”
The earliest dated carving she has found was done in 1917, the latest in 1959. Arborglyphs are only part of the livestock history of the region, however. Lambert will fit the remains of camps, sheep corrals and trash pits that the shepherds left into a broader context.
“The arborglyphs don’t exist by themselves,” Lambert said. “They’re part of a bigger picture.”
The names, dates and places provide the basis for genealogical investigation to find descendants of the Hispanic shepherds who still live in the area and create oral histories.
Lambert didn’t have to look far. Pete López, a lifelong resident of Arboles, who was present for the Oct. 5 tour, recognized the carved name Daniel Monuez as a neighbor of his parents.
López broke the family involvement with sheep established by his father, Marguerito, and grandfather, Donaciano, when he made a career with the Colorado Department of Transportation. But he heard sheep stories as a youngster.
“I remember my father telling of going to summer pasture with my grandfather,” López said. “He was left alone with the flock once when he was 12 years old, while his father returned with pack donkeys for supplies.
“They wouldn’t sell to him in Bayfield, because he didn’t speak English, so he had to travel to Ignacio,” López said. “On his return, he was delayed for a couple of days by flooding, which frightened my father because he had only the guard for company.”
Lambert also would like to answer a question frequently heard from participants on her recent visit – why are there no carvings dated earlier than 1917 or beyond the late 1950s?
Lambert also could learn something about the society of the times and conflicts between sheepmen and cattlemen, a common situation throughout the West.
What is known is that shepherds brought their flocks to Moonlick Park, elevation 9,600 feet, and Beaver Meadows, elevation 9.800 feet, from Bayfield, Ignacio, Arboles and Pagosa Junction near the New Mexico state line.
Government topographical maps from 1924 show 46 miles of U.S. Forest Service-designated livestock driveways stretching from the New Mexico into Hinsdale County, a few miles north of Beaver Meadows. The stretch in Archuleta County that is the focus of Lambert’s project totals 26 miles.
The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act aimed to improve range conditions by creating grazing districts. Amendments permitted grazing through allotments to individuals.
Evidence of prehistoric presence in the aspen groves is scarce, but it turns up occasionally, in fact, twice in three days.
During the Oct. 5 tour, Col Hinds, 8, with parents Dan Hinds and Rachel Turiel, came across a 2½-inch quartzite projectile point with a broken tip; the next Monday, Kristie Arrington, a former Bureau of Land Management archeologist who was helping Lambert, found an intact, 1-inch obsidian projectile point.
Both pieces were left where they were found, the protocol required under the 1906 Antiquities Act and the 1976 Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
The arborglyph project is funded by the Colorado Historical Society, the National Trust for Historical Preservation, the U.S. Forest Service and the San Juan Mountains Association.
“We’re conducting the project in partnership with the San Juan National Forest, the La Plata County Historical Society, the Animas Museum and the Pine Valley Heritage Society,” Lambert said.
After reports to the sponsors, Lambert will write a book, and exhibits will be held at the Pine River Valley Heritage Society museum, the Animas Museum and the Open Shutter Gallery.