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Amateur Naturalist: Finding History In A Forest Part 1

on August 17, 2019 - 7:05am

A shepherd, burros and sheep in the Valles Caldera.  Photo by T. Harmon Parkhurst

By Robert Dryja
Los Alamos

One way to consider tree species is to place them in ecological habitats. For example, Ponderosa pine can be considered part of a lower elevation habitat at 7,000 feet elevation while alpine meadows can be considered as part of a high elevation habitat at 10,000 feet.  Aspen groves represent an intermediate habitat occurring between 7,500 to 9,000 feet.

Aspen groves alternatively can be considered as a kind of history book. Sheepherders considered the smooth white bark of the trunk as a kind of natural paper.  Many sheepherders left clues about their lives in their tree carvings from the late 19th century to the 1940’s. The carvings provide a very personal viewpoint that compliments the broad picture provided by traditional history books.

The Valles Caldera was a major sheepherding location. As many as 100,000 sheep were brought in annually to graze on its grassy meadows. Its aspen groves now provide some historical clues about the Hispanic sheepherders of northern New Mexico who watched over all those sheep.
The Catholic Church was a major influence in Spanish Colonial America. Churches and parishes were established initially in Mexico and then progressed northward into what eventually become New Mexico. The impact of the Catholic Church remains significant to the present. As an example, Chimayo is a small rural Hispanic community but its church is a major Easter pilgrimage destination for people from throughout the country. Thousands of people come to it each year.

Given the importance of the Catholic church, its symbolic cross was carved by sheepherders on aspen trees. The traditional cross is relatively easy to carve, involving to two straight lines. However, more complex images have been created. Picture 1 shows the traditional cross with small triangles at the ends of the arms. Picture 2 shows a Maltese cross. It involves four elongated triangles that meet at a central circle. Picture 3 shows an even more complex carving. It combines the straight lines of a traditional cross with the triangles of the Maltese cross.

Was the intent to carve a more artistic and geometric image that expressed intense religious belief?

Images of sheep are more difficult to make since curves now are needed, not straight lines. Picture 4 shows a sheep drawn with gentle curves, not too different from straight lines.

Picture 5 must have taken more artistic effort. Both the neck and the tail are made with semicircles. (The quality of the carving is affected because the tree is old. Its bark has been chewed by elk, broken, and shifted position over the decades.)

Aspen trees may live for up to 150 years. Shepherds would have made their carvings on already mature, larger trees, possibly 50 years old. The oldest carvings therefore go back about 100 years. Many can be found on fallen trees and so these carvings may be older.  

Picture1: A traditional cross involves two lines and triangles. Photo by Bob Dryja

Picture 2A: A distinct Maltese cross is carved by a person named Julio. Photo Bob Dryja

Picture 2B: A distinct Maltese cross. Photo Bob Dryja

Picture 3A: A possible variation of  the Maltese cross. Photo by Bob Dryja

Picture 3B: A possible variation of  the Maltese cross.  It has straight arms with triangles at their ends. Photo by Bob Dryja

Picture 4: Perhaps this is a simple outline of a sheep. Photo by Bob Dryja

Picture 5A: This is a possible sheep carving. Photo by Bob Dryja

Picture 5A: This is a possible sheep carving. Photo by Bob Dryja