Thousands of domestic sheep once grazed in the mountains of the San Juan National Forest near Pagosa Springs. Now there are none.
High country sheep grazing allotments are vacant, and the only signs of a historic industry are stands of aspen trees carved by Hispanic herders over generations.
Peggy Bergon began recording and photographing those carvings or arborglyphs almost four decades ago. She knows how to “read the trees” and how to find patterns in the aspen art.
“Peggy’s done a great job documenting arborglyphs on the Pagosa Ranger District. The value of our history should not get lost,” said District Ranger Kevin Khung.
This summer, I attended one of Bergon’s popular aspen art walking tours, “Look Who’s Talking: Arborglyphs,” at Buckles Lake Trail No. 688, several miles east off the highway to Chama, New Mexico.
We saw 500-year-old Spanish-style Christian crosses carved by Merejil Valdez and Celtic knots, boxes and stars etched by Leandro Cruz. Eturo Sanchez drew grouse and Solomon Trujillo perfected handlebar mustaches.
“I’ve been up here before, but I didn’t really know what I was looking at. Peggy’s passion is wonderful,” said Anne Hickman of Albuquerque.
“It would have taken 20 years to find and see what we saw today,” said David and Ginny Smiley of Pagosa Springs.
Bergon deserves the accolades, but when she began in 1977, locals thought she was a bit daft. Who cared what messages sheepherders left on trees? She was told, “That’s not important. That’s just sheepherder graffiti.” But now her critics realize she’s sharing a historic and cultural treasure.
Her 2½-hour interpretive walks – once in the summer and once in the fall on a three-mile loop – are in their 12th year. The tours fill with locals and visitors to Pagosa Springs who delight in following Bergon as she shows off the names, designs and portraits of her favorite carvers including Pantelon & Pablo Casados, Solomon Trujillo and Benigro Gallegos.
“Arborglyphs captivated me from the beginning,” Bergon said. “I’ve always looked at these as folk art. They have become an important historical aspect of the forest and have a specific story to tell.”
After decades of following sheep trails and stock driveways, Bergon can recognize herders’ carvings from yards away because of their distinctive writing style, caricatures or artistic flourishes like Solomon Trujillo’s smiling facial profiles always with large, glittering eyelashes, especially on men.
“This is a hobby with a purpose,” she said. “The greater picture here is documenting Western history, the untold story of sheepherders compared to the more famous and popular cowboys.”
As early as 1893, Archuleta County annually shipped 300,000 pounds of wool on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, in addition to thousands of borregas or sheep. Families that ran woolies had names such as Candelaria, Gallegos, Rodriquez, Martinez, Quintana, Lopez, Trujillo, Archuleta, Pacheco, Garcia, Munoz, Lobato, Jacquez, Vigil and Ortiz. They hired herders from Lumberton, Los Ojos, Chama, Blanco, Coyote and Caniljon in northern New Mexico to live with the flocks from June to September.
Herders trailed sheep north into Colorado and left their names and dates carved on aspen trees in a beautiful curving penmanship that proved they had attended school through the eighth grade. The penmanship taught across America was Spencerian, and the herders proudly demonstrated their literacy by carving the date they passed by, their names and where they were from.
Bergon has found thousands of separate glyphs, and her work gained a new urgency after Durango’s 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire, which destroyed aspen carvings as the fire roared over the ridge east toward the Pine River drainage.
“I saw that this was a resource that was disappearing,” she said.
Bergon spent even more time searching for aspen groves that represent only 12 percent of the 590,000 acres of the Pagosa Ranger District.
“I’ve always looked at this as my gift to the community,” she said. “It’s a great history that Pagosa Springs has now embraced.”
Bergon has spoken to herders and their descendants who were “delighted that someone was showing an interest” in the carvings of their fathers and grandfathers.
She began as a camp cook in the Weminuche Wilderness wondering about all the inscriptions and designs she found on aspen trees. Over the years, she’s learned the trails, patterns and movements of sheep, and she finds familiar names carved in the forest with dates from each decade beginning in the 1910s up to about 1960.
Those years were the “golden age” of aspen arborglyphs and sheepherding in general, which prospered during both world wars but then declined as Americans ate less lamb and synthetic fibers replaced wool.
While Peggy Bergon searches for carved aspens in Archuleta County, Ruth Lambert, archaeologist for the San Juan Mountains Association, looks in the forest’s Columbine Ranger District in La Plata County.
“Aspen art is not just art images on a living canvas,” Lambert said. “The carvings are a reflection of a cultural way of life. They are artifacts of a larger story that is grounded in those traditions. They provide a window into Hispano life.”
She leads glyph tours into Moonlick Park and Beaver Meadows along the Pine-Piedra Stock Driveway.
Esther Greenfield also hikes into the woods in search of carved aspen trees. In 17 years of exploring forested areas surrounding Durango, Greenfield has found and documented nearly 1,300 historic aspen tree carvings.
She received a grant from the Durango Arts Center’s Microgrant Program to have a graphic designer create a book that contains about 150 of her favorite arborglyphs, along with historical research tying some of the carvings to specific people. That book, Reading the Trees: A Curious Hiker’s Field Journal of Hidden Woodland Messages, will soon be available.
As Bergon returned to town after her arborglyph tour, my dog and I stayed on. Just before afternoon thunderstorms hit, we set out on our own to find more trees based on Bergon’s suggestions. As we hiked a steep ridge, I found what I was looking for. Numerous trees had carvings and dates from the 1930s through the 1950s etched delicately with a pen knife or even a horseshoe nail. Just a thin scratch on the smooth white bark, so as the tree grew, the inscription would expand. I marveled at the penmanship of a herder from Chama.
Carved aspen trees are living monuments, and the last remnants of a historic male occupational tradition. As I begin my own research on high altitude grazing and sheepherder glyphs in each of Colorado’s six national forests across the state, I hope to find dedicated researchers like Bergon, Greenfield and Lambert.
Sheep ranged everywhere in Colorado. They came north from New Mexico, east from Utah and south from Wyoming to graze on public lands. There are many stories to tell from Hispanic, Greek and Basque herders, and I’ll try to write a 100-year environmental history.
There is much to learn, because as Bergon laments, “It’s devastating to come back and see a tree that’s fallen. The forest is different now because the sheep driveways are overgrown.”
Now, in the Pagosa Ranger District, the sheep are gone. The herders are gone. Only their carvings remain.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.