GENERAL LEVALLE, Argentina—Pilots often stare in disbelief when they make their first flight over this hamlet on the verdant pampa. There, on the monotonous plain below, is a giant guitar landscaped out of cypress and eucalyptus trees. It is more than two-thirds of a mile long.
Behind the great guitar of the pampa, and its 7,000-odd trees, is a love story that took a tragic turn.
The green guitar is the handiwork of a farmer named Pedro Martin Ureta, who is now 70. He embedded the design into his farm many years ago, and maintains it to this day, as a tribute to his late wife, Graciela Yraizoz, who died in 1977 at the age of 25.
“It’s incredible to see a design that was so carefully planned, so far below,” says Gabriel Pindek, a commercial pilot for Argentina’s Austral Lineas Aereas. “There’s nothing else like it.”
Born to a ranching family with deep roots here, Mr. Ureta was something of a bohemian as a young man. He traveled to Europe and hobnobbed with artists and revolutionaries. After coming home in the late 1960s, the then-28-year old became captivated by Ms. Yraizoz, who was just 17 and dazzlingly pretty.
The local priest almost refused to perform the wedding, the farmer recalls: He didn’t think Mr. Ureta seemed sufficiently committed to loving Ms. Yraizoz “all the days” of his life. But Mr. Ureta proved extraordinarily devoted to Ms. Yraizoz, their friends and children say, and the union was happy, if brief.
“My mother was a doer,” says Mr. Ureta’s 38-year-old daughter, Soledad, one of four children produced in the marriage. “She helped guide my father. She sold clothes. She helped oversee work in the fields, and did weaving on a big loom.”
One day while traveling in a plane over the pampa, Ms. Yraizoz noticed a farm that, through a fluke of topography, looked a bit like a milking pail from the air, her children say. That’s when she started musing about going one better and designing the family’s own farm in the form of a guitar, an instrument she loved.
“My father was a young man, and very busy with his work and his own plans,” says his youngest child, Ezequiel, who is 36. “He told my mom, ‘Later. We’ll talk about it later.'”
But Ms. Yraizoz didn’t have much time to wait. One day in 1977, she collapsed. She had suffered a ruptured cerebral aneurysm, a weakening in the wall of a blood vessel that eventually burst. She died shortly thereafter, carrying what would have been the couple’s fifth child.
Today, Mr. Ureta says his wife’s passing turned his life in a more philosophical direction. ¨I stepped back for a time,¨ he says. He read about Buddhism. Mr. Ureta says a line by an Argentine folk guitarist and writer, Héctor Roberto Chavero Aramburo, stuck in his head: “I galloped a lot, but I arrived late all the same.”
Says Soledad: “He used to talk about regrets, and it was clear he regretted not having listened to my mother about the guitar.”
A few years after his wife’s death, Mr. Ureta decided to comply with her wishes about the design of the farm. Landscapers he consulted were predictably nonplussed, so he took on the job himself. “You just put a guitar in front of you and begin to take measurements and study proportions,” he says.
His giant guitar is an unusual example of what’s known as land art, in which forms are built into the natural environment, said Nancy Somerville, chief executive officer of the American Society of Landscape Architects. One famous example is Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot-long structure of mud, rocks and salt crystals built by artist Robert Smithson in Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Using trees, as Mr. Ureta did, rather than with rocks or shrubbery, is a “pretty tremendous undertaking,” Ms. Somerville said, due to the time and care needed to cultivate them.
Most of the guitar, including the figure-eight-shaped body and star-shaped sound hole, is formed of cypress trees. For the strings, Mr. Ureta planted six rows of eucalyptus trees, whose bluish tone offers a contrast visible from above.
Planting the guitar was a family affair. “All of us kids would stand in a row, three meters apart,” says Soledad, and then the farm hands “would plant a tree on the spot where each of us stood.” The children would “re-form the line in a new position, and they’d plant more trees.”
Getting the saplings to grow was a tougher. Hares and wild guinea pigs devastated the fragile plants. “I had to plant and replant and I almost gave up,” the farmer says. Finally, Mr. Ureta hit on an inspiration. He got some scrap metal and jury-rigged protective sleeves around the young trees.
When the trees finally began to shoot up, ¨It was the closest thing possible to having my mother alive,” says Maria Julia, a 39-year-old daughter.
While he was nurturing the trees, Mr. Ureta was also raising four children. A field hand named Raul Coronel helped with some of the cooking. “The food may not have been great, but there was always lots of it,” says Mr. Coronel. Every day, Mr. Ureta drove the kids about 10 miles to school in his pickup truck. When the pickup got stuck in the mud during rainy season, he used a horse to pull it out.
Today, the oldest son, Ignacio, 42, is an engineer; Maria Julia is a pharmaceutical sales representative; Soledad is a special education teacher; and Ezequiel is a veterinarian. There are nine grandchildren.
Mr. Ureta waited a long time after his wife’s death before getting involved in a serious relationship, his children say. In the 1990s, he began seeing Maria de los Angeles Ponzi, who runs the town pharmacy. They haven’t married, but have an 11-year-old daughter, Manuela. Ms. Ponzi says she appreciates the beauty of the tribute to her partner’s first wife.
Mr. Ureta himself has never seen his great guitar from the sky, except in photographs. He’s afraid of flying