Amateur Naturalist: Finding History In A Forest – Artistry Of Sheepherders

By ROBERT DRYJA
Los Alamos

We have been reviewing how aspen trees can provide cultural history as well as be a part of plant ecology.

The sheepherders of northern New Mexico lived in small, poor rural communities in the early 20th century. Their summers involved isolation in mountain meadows with their sheep.

This suggests that they were illiterate and had little awareness of the larger world.

However cursive letter carvings show that sheepherders could write at more than a basic level. Letters made with curves are far more demanding in technical and artistic skill compared with straight-lined block letters.

The carvings also could show the importance of religion in their lives based on the kinds of symbols they carved. Some crosses were based on two straight lines but others were based on the more complex Maltese style.

Sheepherds also showed an interest in art by the kinds of pictures they made. The following are four examples. Picture 1A provides an overview of a carving made by someone named Ilabo Sanches.

His name is below what may be a carving of a crown. Picture 1B shows a close up of the crown. Pictures 2A and 2B perhaps are of a partially completed image of a head. It may show a person’s hair with a crown but the face is yet not completed.

Similar to Picture 1A, there is a name carved under picture but it is not legible. The year, “1934” appears further around the tree trunk.

Picture 1A: A partial artistic rendering of a possible crown is above the name of Ilabo Sanches. Photo by Robert Dryja

Picture 1B: A partial artistic rendering of a possible crown is above the name of Ilabo Sanches. Photo by Robert Dryja  

Pictures 2A and 2B: Is this the start of a picture of person’s head?  An illegible name is below the head. Photo by Robert Dryja  

 

Pictures 2A and 2B: Is this the start of a picture of person’s head?  An illegible name is below the head. Photo by Robert Dryja  

Picture 3 is a more symbolic image.  It can be considered as showing two people coming together.  The initials “EM” and “FM” are carved together inside the outline of a hand.  Is one hand holding two people together?  Pictures 4A and 4B shows a heart with the letters of a name and a date of June 29, 1932.

Picture 3: A hand with two sets of initials within it. Photo by Robert Dryja

Pictures 4A and 4B: A more romantic carving made nearly a century ago. Photo by Robert Dryja

Pictures 4A and 4B: A more romantic carving made nearly a century ago. Photo by Robert Dryja

Picture 5B is a more elaborate drawing.The Lady of Guadalupe is of major historical religious significance in Mexico. An apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared several times in 1531 according to Catholic accounts and miracles are associated with this event. The traditional image of the Lady of Guadalupe has her surrounded by rays.Picture 5A is an example of this. Picture 5B show these rays as a part of a carving on a tree.  Unfortunately the trunk of the tree is has two major vertical splits and the image is pulled apart into three sections.

This carving may be approximately one hundred years old and is two feet in length. It is based on a classic painting made in the 1700’s. Compared to carving a name or date, this carving would have represented a major effort. The significance of the Lady of Guadalupe is reflected by the number of churches named for her.  Seven such churches are located in rural communities of northern New Mexico. The shepherd who made the carving may have attended one of them.

Pictures 5A: A drawing of the Lady of Guadalupe surrounded by rays. Courtesy image

Picture 5B: A drawing of the Lady of Guadalupe surrounded by rays and the tree carving based on it. Photo by Robert Dryja

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