Reyes García has a deep and abiding connection to the Upper Rio Grande valley. His family settled near the town of Antonito, Colorado in the 1850s, and 30 years later established the ranch where he still lives. Garcia grew up herding sheep, learning from Basque sheepherders who worked for his father and other ranchers throughout the San Luis valley. When he was just 13 years old, his father died, leaving his brother in charge of the family ranches which straddle Colorado and New Mexico. His brother switched to cattle ranching and Garcia became a caballero, learning about irrigation and putting up hay.
“My brother was a good rancher. He knew how to take good care of the land. I learned from him the priorities a rancher lives by, guided by the ecological values involved in caring deeply for land and animals and maintaining the Indo-Hispano heritage of conservation,” says García.
After studying classics at Georgetown University, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam. When he returned to Colorado, he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from CU Boulder and then taught at Fort Lewis College in Durango, retiring in 2011. García has researched and written extensively about spiritual dimensions of nature and ways in which Indigenous and other land-based peoples regard spirituality and life in relationship with nature as inseparable.
“For decades, I’ve also studied and taught Hinduism and Buddhism, which are very nature-oriented. I learned from many sources — but primarily from my experience living close to the land — this lesson: the land doesn’t belong to me, I belong to the land.”
The García ranch is lush with grassy meadows, wildflowers, willows and cottonwood trees. The Conejos River flows close by to the North, creating hundreds of acres of wetlands that provide habitat for many species of wildlife and birds, including the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.
“Every March, hundreds of elk pass through this ranch. It is truly an amazing sight to watch that migration happen,” says García.
Several years ago, the García family put 770 acres into a conservation easement with the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, which means the land and the wildlife on it will be protected for generations to come. And earlier this year, many of the ranch buildings – including the old adobe farmhouse, granary and potato cellar – were listed on the National Register of Historic Places to preserve the Indo-Hispano culture that has undergirded the agro-pastoral traditions of the San Luis Valley since the first Spanish-speaking pioneers settled there in the 1850s.
García, his priority of protecting these lands — and the wildlife that migrate through– reflects his holistic view of nature, which is at once both transitory and constant. Here is how he described that notion in an essay:
The swallows and wrens that return each year teach me not to cling too strongly to my homeland here on el Rio de los Conejos. Yes, they return here to nest and raise their young, as I once did. But they do not stay beyond that season of their lives, which are too short for lingering, no doubt. They travel on, to where I know not. Nor do I know where they come from. It is enough that they know. And they remember well enough to repeat their cyclical journeys their whole lives, to which there is a mystical completeness, like the all-encompassing environment of earth and sky surrounding every single being.