The haunting cries of trumpeting bull elks permeate the fall air, echoing through the grassy valleys and wooded lava domes of the Valles Caldera National Reserve as a group of volunteers deploy to search for needles in a haystack of nearly 90,000 acres.
Navigating the dead end while meticulously painting the slopes and drainages of the reserve’s hinterland, retired men and women intermittently make their own calls, shouting or communicating via radios bidirectional.
“I have one here!” Are the words that bring the group members together as they enthusiastically converge on an aspen to try and decipher a new discovery from an old message.
Early 20th-century Hispanic shepherds frequently carved their names, sometimes with the date and name of their hometown, on the smooth white canvases of aspen in what was known as Baca Location No. 1, or Baca Ranch.
Sometimes they exercised their artistic side by engraving animals, objects, religious symbols and human figures – including an abundance of erotic images – to pass the time while their herds grazed in the high alpine meadows.
These tree carvings, or “dendroglyphs,” number in the thousands in the caldera and reveal tidbits of history about the people who worked the land a century ago.
Discovering a dendroglyph, in particular a clearly identifiable name or design, generates a real rush for the researcher.
“It’s like a pot of gold,” said Colleen Olinger, 80, a Los Alamos resident who has led the volunteer survey program since its inception in 2008. “It’s exciting. You know you recorded something that, if you didn’t record it, no one else would, and it would be gone forever.
The merger of a cultural resource over a fragile natural resource results in an urgent attempt to document the dendroglyphs before they disappear.
Olinger said dendroglyphs are usually found on dead trees or on those nearing the end of their lifespan. Aspen can live up to 150 years, but it usually begins to die around the age of 80 to 100. When trees fall and decompose, dendroglyphs accompany them.
Most of the documented dendroglyphs date from the 1920s to the 1940s, Olinger said. Small numbers from the late 1800s have also been found, while many from this era have been lost to decay.
Until 2020, the team of volunteers had recorded 1,383 of the more than 3,300 dendroglyphs found in the reserve, or about 40%. Professional archaeologists found the others by performing comprehensive archaeological studies in the caldera.
Interdisciplinary scientist and reserve communicator Dr Anastasia Steffen has overseen the volunteer survey program since she started it in 2008. She said the data dozens of volunteers have collected over the years. The past 13 years have provided important background and information on an often overlooked subset of predominantly Hispanic people working in the area in the early 1900s.
“Their story is not really told anywhere other than in their own tree column,” Steffen said of the Shepherds. “What is really amazing is that we can connect real families whose descendants still live in the area today with the reserve.”
In a 1981 study of the history of reserve land use, historian Dan Scurlock wrote that shepherds of this period worked under a left system similar to sharecropping.
In this system, Scurlock wrote, a landowner would give a small flock of sheep to add to a by partidario herd and allow grazing on the ground. A contract would require the partidario annually return half of the increased flock and shorn wool to the owner and compensate the owner for all losses. After five years, the owner was to be reimbursed for the sheep initially donated to the partidario.
Brothers George and Frank Bond, Canadian businessmen and entrepreneurs, purchased Baca’s # 1 location in 1918. Most of the dendroglyphs found in the reserve were carved by shepherds who grazed their flocks on the land while she belonged to the Bonds.
Dendroglyph hunters have found engravings that included place names as far north as Chama and as far south as Los Lunas. Steffen wrote a report in 2018 which found that the most commonly engraved place names were Cuba, Chamita, Santa Fe, and Cow Springs.
The last names found among the caldera carvings are predominantly Hispanic. The most common are Martinez, Lujan, Trujillo, Sanchez, Salazar and Garcia.
Reading the names or deciphering the pictures is often a challenge for volunteers.
Aspen bark may crack with age, becoming dark and rough around the trunk. Many dendroglyphs have degraded because of this and are partially missing or broken.
The elk that inhabit the reserve create additional obstacles. Elk eat trembling aspen bark, and their gnawing can scratch dendroglyphs or create marks that can be mistaken for tree carvings.
The volunteer collection is primarily made up of retirees with diverse professional backgrounds from the Los Alamos and White Rock areas. They usually travel to the Valles Caldera hinterland in groups of four to five, and sometimes they need each of them to determine what has been carved.
“How many doctorate astrophysicists does it take to recognize an image? Jokes Bob Dryja, 74, a retired healthcare administrator who has become the group’s designated dendroglyph photographer.
Dryja recounted a case where volunteers encountered a strange curved oval carved from an aspen with markings inside. No one in the group could tell what it was until Steve Daly, from New Mexico, stepped back and acknowledged that it was a sculpture of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Volunteers use the same methods to document dendroglyphs as professional archaeologists.
Each sculpture is recorded with a digital photo and a drawing. Other information, including the GPS coordinates of the tree, the direction in which the sculpture is facing, the height of the sculpture from the ground to its middle, and an interpretation of the sculpture, is also taken.
Volunteers are able to cover survey areas much faster than professional archaeologists, Steffen said. While volunteers only need to search for aspens, archaeologists should also focus on the surface of the ground and document any cultural resources they find.
The rapid volunteer process is useful for saving more dendroglyphs before they are lost due to degradation, fire, or other threats.
The group was honored for its efforts nationally in 2010 when volunteers were recognized as Preserve America Stewards by the Historic Preservation Advisory Council, an organization that promotes the preservation and enhancement of the nation’s historic resources. Dozens of volunteers have spent thousands of hours in the caldera since then, with many more forests to explore.
However, it’s not just any sort of recognition that drives volunteers forward. These are the joys and surprises that come from being in nature and the camaraderie that has developed from digging through trees together.
“It’s being outside with people who love to be outside,” said Randy Pair, 69, a biologist who worked as a botanist for the US Forest Service.
For several years now, Pair has been organizing group outings in the reserve. There are usually one or two trips per week from June to November, depending on the weather.
After outings, volunteers meet frequently at Olinger’s for a drink and to tell about their experience in the field.
The promise of seeing something new every week – whether it’s a shepherd’s carving of a mermaid or acres of flowering irises in a valley – keeps volunteers excited to come together. make it into the caldera.
They say they feel lucky to have been commissioned by the staff at Valles Caldera to help document a piece of history in a place dear to them.
“It’s a community where there are a lot of highly educated people who over the course of their careers have worked to understand the world around them,” said Dryja. “By being able to go out and search for dendroglyphs, there is an opportunity to continue practicing science and data collection in a truly spectacular natural setting.”