As ephemeral as a sand painting in the wind, a piece of Durango’s cultural heritage is slipping away.
Culturally historic carvings cut into soft-barked aspen trees by sheepherders, cowboys or passersby are called “arborglyphs.” And for more than 20 years, I’ve been finding and documenting them while hiking in the mountains surrounding Durango. Often, they are simply messages about love and longing, where to find water, which way to go or poignant “remember me” messages.
The historical significance of the carvings was, at one time, enough to warrant federal grant money for the San Juan Mountains Association in Durango to use to document them before the events of time and nature erased them forever. Sadly, some of them will never be seen again because of cutting, vandalism or natural erosion.
Some of the missing in action are:
Maybe it was the wind, that big wind last fall that blew down so many trees and caused the aspen leaves to swirl up into the air and back down again in a yellow cloud? Or maybe it was a tree vandal, that peculiar, surreptitious kind of thief who plunders cultural artifacts with no one but the squirrels or birds to notice.
Whoever or whatever caused this beautiful carving to lie crumpled on the forest floor, its loss is irreparable. Found in 2014, the carving on the south side of Cascade Creek was still intact and healthy in 2018. Most of it is now gone. Probably carved in the 1940s, it revealed a World War II German bomber falling out of the sky, guns blazing, as an anti-aircraft gun, known as an Ack-Ack, fires at it.
Carved onto the fuselage of the plane is a German cross. Most of that is still there, but the slab of bark with much of the plane on it now lies at the base of the tree covered by forest debris. By next spring, it most likely will have disappeared, perishing back into the earth.
HHHThe carved letters and numbers, done in Old Roman typeface, were 2-feet tall and meticulously carved when I found this carving in 2004, one of the oldest arborglyphs I’ve ever found.
It was on a massive aspen tree in a particularly dark and heavily forested area on the Cascade Creek Trail. It was still there in 2008; by 2010, most of the bark had peeled off and fallen to the ground. In 2012, the entire tree was gone, not even a pile of sawdust was left. Cut down for firewood? What a shame for the unknown EVG to lose the tree that had been his home for over 100 years.
HHHIt was a surprise in 2007 to find the name of someone I’d heard about from an old timer in Durango named Dorothy Lechner. Tacoma Bill (Bill Billingsley) was her friend, the retired operator of the Tacoma Power Plant along the train tracks north of Durango. He got the name “Tacoma Bill” because he answered his phone, “Tacoma ... Bill speaking.” And became “Tacoma Bill.”
This carving is on a tree about 20 feet from a section of the Cascade water flume. Parts of “Bill” began bucking and heaving off the tree in the early 2000s. By 2014, the “Bill” was gone along with part of the “Tacoma.” Gone not because of fire or vandals or woodcutters but because of the natural evolution of an aspen tree.
HHHWhat message was Jerry Dosser trying to convey when he carved “Watch for a craze …”? A crazed what? Cowboy? Bear? Mountain lion?
This carving found in 2003 in the Moonlick Meadows area near Bayfield is as precisely done as a drawing by the Renaissance printmaker Albrecht Dürer. The bark holding the words “Watch for a craze” shredded away in 2008. By 2015, the entire tree had vanished, probably cut for firewood or for the carving itself.
This self-assured, smiling bear was found in 2004 on a young aspen clinging to a steep hillside along the Cascade Creek Trail. The hillside was just beginning to erode back then, and by 2015, the tree was gone, having slipped down into the canyon below, taking the little bear with it.
You can almost see the smoke curling out of the gun barrels of this desperado’s guns. It was dated 1935, and I found it near the Colvig Silver Camps area on the Red Creek Trail in 2001.
It was there in 2006 but has now completely disappeared, along with the tree. For so long, the desperado remained hidden on the back side of the aspen facing away from the trail, but no more.
HHHDirectly across from the desperado was this beautifully rendered horse with his intricate saddle and bridle, done in the same style as the desperado and probably by the same carver.
Found originally in 2001 and still there in 2006, he, too, is now gone. The importance of the horse in Western culture is reflected in the number of aspen trees with horses carved on them.
What comes through the carvings is the artists’ love and respect for their horses. Love and respect, however, were not enough to save this horse.
Esther Greenfield is the author of “Reading the Trees: A Curious Hiker’s Field Journal of Hidden Woodland Messages.” She continues to hike and search for arborglyphs around Durango wherever they might be found.