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Community Agriculture Alliance: History is written in the woods

Emily Katzman
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
An arborglyph in the White River National Forest.
Courtesy photo

Many Septembers ago, I walked an old U.S. Forest Service road with my mom. I was in sensory heaven. I took in the sounds of golden aspen leaves spiraling to the ground, the earthy smell of their decay and the crunch beneath our feet. Then I stopped in my tracks, my jaw dropped when I saw it: the graceful, curvy and unmistakable outline of a woman’s body carefully carved into an aspen trunk. 

Known as arborglyphs, aspen tree carvings are a legacy of generations of lone sheepherders who have guarded their flocks as they grazed the Colorado high country. There is value in understanding arborglyphs both as records of the individuals who created them — who were they and what must their lives have been like? — and also as symbols of the historical sheep ranching industry in Colorado. 

The story of domestic sheep in Colorado begins in the 1870s, but in Routt County, the sheep came later. According to the “Agricultural Context of Routt County” report, sheepherders tried to enter Routt County from Wyoming in 1890 but were met with a deadline of cattle ranchers who forced them to turn around. Competition for forage and grazing areas resulted in serious tension between cattle and sheep ranchers that escalated into a conflict now known as the Range Wars. 

To reduce conflict and better manage the public land, the newly created Forest Service began regulating grazing and established a permit system in 1911. National Forest managers throughout the state designated driveways to channel sheep through cattle-grazing areas into high summer pastures, grass that was undesirable cattle feed.

The practice of moving sheep into the high country was necessary because forage in dry, lower elevation winter pastures was limited. The cool summers at elevation also had the benefit of stimulating the production of a heavier fleece. 

Historically, sheep herding was an attractive occupation for Hispano, Basque and Greek immigrants to the region. According to historian Andrew Gulliford, author of “The Woolly West,” herders were in charge of a band of 900 to 1,000 sheep.

With help from their dogs, they would have spent the summers keeping the sheep in line, guarding them at night against predators, always moving them toward water and fresh grass. Life would have been lonely. They lived in tents or wagons all summer and only occasionally saw another person, perhaps for a restock of provisions. 

While moving their flock through the high country, they stopped to etch names, dates, symbols, portraits of women and observations from the mountains. Gulliford’s research indicates that generations of herders returned to the same forests, and some carvings appear to be messages among uncles, fathers and sons.

Anyone who has stumbled upon an arborglyph in Routt County knows there are some crude depictions of sex. However, archaeologists who have documented arborglyphs in the San Juan Mountains found that erotic images account for only 5% of all carvings in that region. 

There is nothing like discovering an old arborglyph. I encourage recreationalists to slow down and look closely. Herders have recorded their histories on the trees. Yet aspens only live 60 to 100 years, and that history is vanishing at an ever-increasing rate, particularly due to a poorly understood condition called sudden aspen decline.

However, the herders’ legacy continues. High country sheep grazing is still in practice, in much the same way as the days of old. Those interested in learning more about the history of domestic sheep in Colorado, the landscapes they’ve created and the complex contemporary issues around high country grazing, should read “The Woolly West” by Andrew Gulliford. 

Please do not leave new carvings of your own. Herders skillfully and delicately carved in a way that did not cause injury to a tree. Irresponsible carving can cause injury that can then reduce the life span of the tree. If you are lucky enough to see some of these carvings, enjoy them, respect these historical finds and leave no new carvings of your own.

Emily Katzman is the executive director of Historic Routt County.


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