Carved in Bark: Arborglyphs of America

Carved in Bark: Arborglyphs of America

Americans have long carved their marks, names, and news into trees, even with little assurance anyone would read the inscriptions before time and nature rotted them away.

Some marks, however, were recognized and respected. Starting in 1691, the English crown claimed title to New England’s best white pines. If the trees grew within 10 miles of navigable waterways, the king’s surveyors reserved them for Royal Navy shipbuilding with three hatchet slashes called the “King’s Broad Arrow.”

More commonly, hunters on America’s frontier carved their names into the smooth bark of long-lived beech trees after successful kills. Historians still debate, however, whether such carvings were authentic. Did “D. Boone Kilt a Bar” or did “D. Boon cilled a bar” by a Tennessee tree in 1760; or was it 1775 when “D. Boon killed a bar” there, before repeating the feat in 1803 when “D. Boone Kilt a Bar” in Kentucky? The 1760 carving remained legible on a massive beech along Tennessee’s Carroll Creek until about 1880, and the tree finally fell in 1916 at about age 365. Daniel Boone was a great hunter, but did he haphazardly spell “bear,” “killed,” and his own name?

In contrast, few dispute that William Clark carved his name, the date (Dec. 3, 1805), and a message, “By Land from the U. States in 1804 and 1805,” into a pine tree when the Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean. “Clark's Tree,” a 25-foot tall bronze memorial, commemorates the carving at Long Beach, Washington.

Old-Time Carvers

Americans didn’t pioneer tree carving, of course. The Roman poet Virgil was likely the first to describe tree script when writing in 37 B.C. about a shepherd named Mopsus, who recited from bark: “I will try these verses, which the other day I carved on the green beech-bark.”

But even Mopsus wasn’t the first to put blade to bark to write, draw, or carve symbols. As Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, a University of Nevada-Reno history professor, wrote in his 2000 book “Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada,” people in Africa have carved trees since time immemorial. Mallea-Olaetxe should know. He considers tree carvings of the Mountain West historically significant and documented over 20,000 of them with video cameras during the late 1900s and early 2000s, dating some to about 1900.

These creations, called “arborglyphs,” are sliced into trees, and therefore not as enduring as petroglyphs, which are carved into rock. As a result, prehistoric hunters have shared their stories for millennia through cave paintings, while Western shepherds of the past 150 years only shared their artwork for decades. In the U.S., preferred arborglyph trees are aspens in the West and American beech in the East. Rare aspens might live 200 years but 80 is more likely, while beech can live 400 years but 150 is more likely.

Researchers have documented arborglyphs carved by trappers into Ohio beech trees during the early 1900s. They’ve also photographed “witness trees” etched by soldiers, settlers, and Native Americans of the Southeast during the early to mid-1800s.

The Basque Wave

The West’s arborglyphs, however, are more common, and feature carvings by shepherds since the mid-1800s. Some early shepherds were Irish, but more often they were Basques from southern France and northern Spain. Basques flooded to the U.S. during the mid-1800s Gold Rush, but turned to sheepherding when failing to strike it rich. A second wave followed when many Basques fled persecution by dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975.

When Franco died in 1975, the Basques gave way to shepherds from Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Mexico, and Argentina. Meanwhile, the sheep industry was plummeting. The U.S. sheep inventory reached an estimated 60 million in the early 1900s but plunged to an all-time low of about 5.25 million by 2015, only 9% of its high-water mark. From 2000 to 2015, the decline was especially fast in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, with those states holding only about 15% of the U.S. inventory. Idaho alone held 3 million domestic sheep in 1914, but today has less than a tenth of that, roughly 200,000.

Even so, the Basques carved an extensive record of their culture into Western aspens during their decades of sheepherding dominance, Mallea-Olaetxe said. In fact, because they often carved their full name and the date, they unintentionally created the West’s most comprehensive immigration database of shepherds, eclipsing those kept by any state, county, or municipality—or the U.S. Census or Office of Immigration. After all, once immigrants cleared Ellis Island or other entry ports a century ago, no one tracked their whereabouts.

Roaming Ghosts

As such, Mallea-Olaetxe dedicated his book to “the roaming ghosts of alien sheepherders enjoying the cool under the aspens.” Whatever a shepherds’ heritage and wherever they roved, they lived in isolation all summer with few breaks in their routines while tending flocks averaging 1,500 ewes and their lambs. As the sheep rested and chewed their cuds in shady aspen groves from late morning to late afternoon, the shepherds carved.

And when summer ended and shepherds led their flocks back to the valleys, they left behind carved libraries of their thoughts, longings, and loneliness in the secluded aspens above. Elk and mule-deer hunters are among the few who find arborglyphs, given their usual distance from roads and marked trails. When Mallea-Olaetxe asked a shepherd what happens when they’re hurt in such remote mountains, the man said: “Remote you say? God has yet to arrive here.”

Mallea-Olaetxe began studying and documenting the Basque’s arborglyphs about 60 years ago, even though most historians, archaeologists, and the shepherds themselves ignored them. Mallea-Olaetxe can’t explain why Basque shepherds carved so much, while contemporaries like trappers, explorers, soldiers, scouts, prospectors, and Native Americans seldom did. Few herders, however, kept journals or diaries, and they didn’t appoint journalists or researchers to chronicle their lives.

Mallea-Olaetxe said Basque shepherds never intended outsiders to see their carvings, whether it was cowboys and soldiers in the 1800s or hikers, hunters, and campers in the past century. They simply carved to fill time, mark their area, make comments, carve pictures, and identify themselves. Shepherds who later worked the same turf sometimes added their name and date on the tree below.

When Mallea-Olaetxe interviewed shepherds, they often expressed hope he wouldn’t look for their arborglyphs. But even if he did, they doubted he’d find them. He did look, however, and then documented and shared the arborglyphs through his research. Even so, Mallea-Olaetxe protected the carvers’ identities while preserving their words and stories, and capturing their personalities. One of those unnamed shepherds of the 1950s, upon returning to Spain, boasted of being America’s boxing champion during his sheep-tending days. When asked how it happened, he replied:

“I climbed the tallest mountain around and when I reached the summit, I shouted at the top of my lungs that if anyone wanted to challenge me to a fight, he had better come now. I waited a few minutes but no one answered, so I repeated the challenge, and again waited a few minutes. I wanted to give everyone a chance to respond, but no one showed up. Thus, I became champion of America.”

Other shepherds, however, found no joy in their lonely work. As one of them carved in an aspen near Reno, Nevada: “If (a shepherd’s) life is what the old-timers told me it was, my balls are carnations.” Still others complained about camp-tenders, who brought weekly supplies. One arborglyph claimed the camp-tender was a “lazy donkey with a sombrero.” Likewise, a northern California arborglyph from the late 1930s read: “Yesterday my burro ran away. Today it was my camp day and the camp-tender did not show up. Tomorrow, whichever comes first, the burro or the camp-tender…he’s dead.”

Tree Porn?

Not everyone considers arborglyphs artistic or historical. Some dismiss them as “tree graffiti,” while others consider them pornographic, given that some glyphs depict nude women in explicit poses. True, nearly all shepherds were male and most were young adults, but their arborglyphs weren’t exclusively sexual. Many were self-portraits, as well as scenes of home, elk, deer, or distant mountains. Few, however, included sheep, probably because shepherds considered them a mundane part of their work, Mallea-Olaetxe said.

Still, there’s no denying the shepherds’ fixation with lust and love. Some arborglyphs feature lewd sexual acts, while others praised prostitutes in distant towns or mountainside glades accessible to sheep wagons. A chapter in “Speaking Through the Aspens” identifies a site in Nevada’s Table Mountain Wilderness Area known as “Porno Grove” for its lusty arborglyphs. Mallea-Olaetxe and his team video-documented the glyphs in 1991, and dated most of them to the 1940s. They assumed the carver—who went by “J.A.”—was a Basque shepherd, but they eventually learned he was a Shoshone Indian.

Mallea-Olaetxe also documented an area in Nevada with 40 to 50 arborglyphs depicting a naked woman the carver loved. Mallea-Olaetxe identified the carver as “Joe” and the woman as “Jani” to disguise their identities. He thinks Joe met Jani in 1932 and carved nudes of her by the dozens during the 1930s. The carver consistently depicted his beloved high-country hooker as a motherly type who wore high heels and a “flapper” hat, with bobbed hair, prominent chin, obvious belly, ample buttocks, and exaggerated breasts. In a July 1932 carving, Joe wrote “I love Jani” and showed her wearing a pearl necklace that he “intricately sketched by pressing a spent .30-30 shell” into the aspen bark.

Mallea-Olaetxe thinks such artwork isn’t pornographic, noting that the mountains held these arborglyphs over 100 years without offending anyone. No one called it porn until others visited the high country to find its glyphs. Further, the carvers never intended to sell or circulate their arborglyphs, and couldn’t have done so even if they desired.

He also thinks most people understand the situation. Though remote mountains can seem Edenic, Eve rarely visits. Therefore, if we accept graphic art from ancient cultures, we should also accept the shepherds’ erotica. Besides, some shepherds were likely just expressing love through their arborglyphs, which Shakespeare would have appreciated. In his play, “As You Like It,” the character Orlando says:

“O Rosalind! These trees shall be my books And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character That every eye which in this forest looks Shall see thy virtue witness’d everywhere.”

The shepherds’ lust sometimes even sparked long-running “conversations.” After reading an arborglyph stating, “Wine and women are good,” a shepherd years later replied, “Yes, but they are hard on your pocket.”

Top Three Arborglyph Topics

And yet sex was only the fourth most common topic of arborglyphs, Mallea-Olaetxe reported. The most common glyphs shared a date, the carver’s name, and nothing else. Still, some critics consider such brevity vandalism. They say it differs little from defacing statues or ancient ruins, which Mark Twain condemned in “The Innocents Abroad,” writing: “There have always been ruins, no doubt, and there have always been pensive people to sigh over them, and asses to scratch upon them their names and the important date of their visit.”

Mallea-Olaetxe is more charitable, asking, “If you could only write one thing for posterity, what would it be?” Your name, of course. He estimates that 90 to 95% of Basque shepherds carved aspens, but only 30% of their carvings included more than a name and date. Most hikers, campers, hunters, and anglers carve even less. High-country “tourists” typically carve their initials, or maybe their lover’s first name, but seldom a full name. Why? They’re just passing through and probably have no time to write. In contrast, shepherds spent many idle hours alone in the aspens with their flocks and took time to carve their full names.

The shepherd’s second-most common topic was sheepherding, Mallea-Olaetxe said. Their arborglyphs cursed drought, early snow, and poor grazing conditions caused by heat and dust-spewing winds. They also agonized about protecting their sheep from bears, coyotes, and cougars. One shepherd wrote: “In the dark night the bear is roaring and the coyote yelping. If we are not careful, they can kill half of the sheep herd. With the rifle in our hands, we must keep watch all night long.”

The third most common topic was their solitary life and surviving its melancholy. One arborglyph noted life in America was miserable, but “there are no dollars without it.” Another wrote, “Hurrah for the sheepherders and those who have the guts to stay here.” To lift their spirits, they carved scenes of their distant homes and families.

Though far less common, other glyphs shared the shepherds’ worldviews. A shepherd in California’s Plumas National Forest in 1962 grieved for Marilyn Monroe: “This year Marilin Monroe killed herself. Poor Marilin.” Other Basques worried about events back home under Franco, or their likes and dislikes for U.S. politicians. An early 1960s glyph in Nevada’s Copper Basin alluded to President John F. Kennedy: “Do not ask what the country can do for you.” Meanwhile, another glyph bluntly read: “I shit on politics.”

Hackers & Slashers

Not surprisingly, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management usually consider carvings to be graffiti and have long used posters and pamphlets to remind visitors that carving can kill trees. Mallea-Olaetxe wrote that an agency in California’s Humboldt County years ago asked a Spanish-speaking carver to help spread the word that illegal carvings can trigger $35 fines. The result? The carver shared the warning by scratching a long, stern message into a wide “billboard” aspen.

Illegal or not, damage from carvings varies by carver and tree species. As Utah researchers Jan Harold Brunvand and John C. Abramson wrote in the late 1960s, “Sheepherders are the best artists of our genre, hunters and fishermen next, and picnickers and lovers—the roughest hackers and slashers of trees—worst of all.” Basque shepherds typically scratched the bark with a small nail or sliced it lightly with a knife point, while amateurs usually gouged bark as if it were granite. It’s possible Native American carvers taught shepherds that aspens heal shallow wounds over time with black scars, giving definition to the original outline. Aspens, after all, generate distinctive scars on their own after self-pruning lower branches, some resembling spaceships, others a cyclops eye.

Whatever the artwork, it’s not long-lived. Mallea-Olaetxe estimated a quarter-century ago that up to 80% of the Basques’ arborglyphs had already been lost to fires and rotting deadfalls. Even so, efforts to find and document arborglyphs continue with researchers like Professor John Bieter, a historian at Boise State University who specializes in Basque history. Bieter helped create The Arborglyph Collaborative, an effort by Boise State, the University of Nevada-Reno, and California State University-Bakersfield to document aspen carvings and build an online database of arborglyph photos for public viewing.

Bieter, much like Mallea-Olaetxe, is intrigued by Basque shepherds, who carved trees but seldom put words to paper. “You’ll find occasional letters, but I’ve yet to see or hear about a single diary,” he told MeatEater. “The fascination remains strong, and there’s still some Basque shepherds out there, but Peruvians do most of that work today. That work hasn’t changed all that much. The basic rhythms of the day and seasons continue, but shepherds now have far more ways to stay in communication than they did 100 years ago.”

Culture Connections

Bieter enjoys being part of Boise’s Basque community, which numbers about 15,000, and his research often features multi-day backpack trips to search aspen groves for arborglyphs. He said many people still connect with the shepherds’ culture and enjoy events like Ketchum, Idaho’s “Trailing of the Sheep Festival” each October. The event celebrates the history and traditional arts of Idaho’s Basque, Scottish, and Peruvian sheep-ranching families.

In addition, many people own and restore sheep wagons once used by shepherds. A Facebook page called “Sheep Wagon Fever” had over 24,500 members as of mid-August. And, of course, researchers are working on a smartphone app to make it easier for hikers, hunters, anglers, and other back-country travelers to report arborglyphs they find. Wherever you find arborglyphs, take photos, save waypoints, and share everything with the nearest university or agency archaeologist.

That’s especially urgent for arborglyphs 50 years or older, given that time and nature’s work is never done. Marks carved by men eventually turn to dust or ash, reclaimed by groves that once seemed theirs forever.

Feature image via David Burgess.

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