History, in Black and White

Stand of Popular Trees

When they wrote on the trees, Ansel Adams was capturing the essence of their homeland. As they longed for their origins, the world was learning of forgotten places — Coyote, Gallina, Hernandez — via gelatin-silver. The migrants’ yearning for the left behind is recorded on aged trees along nearby wooded trails. Every aspen-bound signature is accompanied by its source — the town from which the carver hailed.

Ansel Adams finally achieved financial success thanks to an autumnal moonrise above a northern New Mexico village, graveside crosses a glowing testament to the day’s dying sun. Many of the residents of this town — Hernandez — achieved financial security by working elsewhere, leaving the buried and the yet-to-be-buried behind. Some made a livelihood of herding sheep in Utah’s La Sal Mountain meadows.

The oldest inscriptions on South Mountain’s flanks date back to the ’20s, making the trees century-old sentinels. The Spanish names continue to appear through the ’50s: Lovato, Garcia, Chacon, Sandoval, Sanchez and others. Some of the surnames still reside in the Moab phonebook — a surprise considering the connection these men felt to their hometowns. One sheepherder wrote an entire ode to Coyote, New Mexico, on an aspen tree. All that remains now is “Yo creo que Coyote es … ” before it devolves into black blisters on bark.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to know what he believed about his home.

Ansel Adams captured the faces and churches of Coyote in the ’30s. Are these the relatives and reliquaries of La Sal Mountain sheepherders? How did Monticello or Moab become home after centuries of faith and family along the Chama River? When they arrived, Catholicism and Spanish were not practiced forms of communion here. Meanwhile, they left towns so isolated and integrated that a form of 16th-century Spanish — otherwise extinct — is still spoken there.

Today, we delight in walking the aspen glades, finding messages from the past on the papery edge between this world and one now gone. Here, yesteryear speaks in riddles. Its language is a labyrinthine network connecting myriad unknowns. After each alpine excursion, we return home and seek glimpses beyond the abstraction of names, into the heart of the people and places mentioned in the trees. Sometimes we find that the past constellates into the present. Sometimes we find that certain galaxies of interest have blinked into oblivion.

We’ve uncovered some of the men’s names in Moab’s newspaper archives: records of illness and death, birth and travel. We’ve found Coyote to be an enigma, as if we are looking at it through the telescope of Ansel Adams’ lens — looking back in time to a town that once was — with no inkling as to its present condition. And we’ve discovered living relatives seeking connection with their past, perhaps unaware of a hidden, sylvan genealogy.

The most gratifying find has been the website of Cosme Chacon’s granddaughter, Ruby. She is an artist, a writer, a proud and beautiful expression of her heritage. Among her artwork, I found a pastels-on-sidewalk representation of her grandfather, a La Sal Mountain sheepherder. Strangely, I am now able to look into the gentle eyes of a man whose 70-year-old steps I recently followed through the forest.

Thanks to Ruby’s writings, I also have a sense for the world in which Cosme lived in Monticello: Spanish was forbidden. There was no Catholic church, so the family had to travel to Colorado for the rituals that lend life meaning. And though the culture wouldn’t accept them, cancer did. The Clan of Downwinders is multilingual, transcultural, perhaps the only true melting — or melding — pot we have.

I want to meet Ruby and — through her memories — Cosme. I want to travel Highways 96 and 84 through Gallina, Coyote and Hernandez. I want to draw the unseen connections between the mountains beyond my window and the memories beyond my knowing. I want to bring color to the clues left in black and white by carving sheepherders and a camera-wielding man.

Coyote is a place. Cosme is a name. And the aspen trees only hint at the fact that they are also so much more.