Carvings on the
bark of aspen trees tell many stories about the sheepherders who
passed through the ranges of the American West. Many
Basques literally left their marks on varied topics given us a
unique window into their solitary existence.
Basque Aspen Carvings by Joxe Mallea
who have ventured on hikes into the mountains of the West have
long known about the carvings on
aspen trees. Some carvings are of names and initials, some
carry dates and various phrases in different languages, some are
images of humans and animals. But what what did these all
mean? Who created them?
some not all of the answers. These carvings
on the bark of aspen trees tell many stories about sheepherders
who passed through the ranges of the American West. And a
good many of these sheepherders were Basque. These carvings on the bark of aspen trees provide a record of the presence,
experiences and thoughts of sheepherders who passed through the
groves decades ago.
arborglyphs are rapidly vanishing
as the trees
are getting older or succumbing to fires, disease, etc.
Historical records, therefore, are disappearing.
Carving on aspens
seems to be a universal Basque sheepherder tradition since the late
1800s. The quality and readability of the carvings varies a
great deal. Some of the etchings are political in nature,
making a claim for Basque solidarity. Others are instead
about the dream girl of herder; some echings are of poetry while
others are basic school boy remarks like "Joxe was
expert carver knew that he had to be patient and precise.
The better carvers
knew how to pick the right tree and
the right tool, and how to make a very thin incision of the
right depth to encourage the perfect scar to form within a few
years, to leave an enduring and undistorted representation of
his name, message or artwork.
worth taking into consideration the intended audience. Sheepherders were carving
their messages and drawings for their own enjoyment and for
other sheepherders. They could not have really anticipated
much general attention in these remote areas.
"The trees are a wonderful window into the Basque immigrant's
way of life from the turn of the century to today. They provide
insight into a group that is largely inaccessible in any other
way" said John Bieter, Ph.D. of Basque Studies at Boise State
University in Idaho.
Susie Osgood, a Forest Service archaeologist based in
California, said. "[The etchings provide] a realistic window
into what you think and do out here when you're all alone. In
the 19th century, you were your own entertainment" she said.
As primitive as life as a shepherd
was, many of the carvings depict illusions of
grandeur. "Some of [the shepherds] appear to have felt they were
someone important - lords of immense mountain ranges and plains
- since there was no one near to dispute their claim," Jose
Mallea says in his book, Carving out History.
Others have all the poignancy of marks etched on to prison
walls. One tree carving near
in Nevada reads: "If [shepherd] life is what the old-timers told
me it was, my balls are carnations." Another, carved in
Euskara, the Basque language, says: "In Spain, they consider us
great men, but here we are nothing."
"I've never gone out and not been
surprised by the creativity of these carvers. Nature and time
and a desire to communicate provided the means for them to
transmit their thoughts and feelings," Dr. Bieter said.
Dr. Jose Mallea in the field documenting the