University of Nevada, Reno

Arborglyphs

Tree carving of a man

Carvings on the bark of aspen trees in the mountains and on the hillsides of Northern Nevada provide a record of the presence, experiences and thoughts of sheepherders who passed through the groves decades ago. Like the sheepherders who carved them, the arborglyphs are vanishing from Northern Nevada, as the trees succumb to the ravages of time: fires, development, vandals, disease, insects, and old age. Carving on aspens has been an almost universal Basque sheepherder tradition since the late 1800s. The quality and readability of the carvings varies a great deal. An expert carver 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. Names, dates, messages and artwork of less experienced or less careful herders can be difficult or impossible to decipher or interpret after a few years. Arborglyphs might include Spanish, Basque or French words or place names, or imperfect English usage or misspellings. But for those with the curiosity, perseverance, and sense of adventure, the study of arborglyphs can be fascinating and educational. For hikers and other casual visitors to aspen groves in Northern Nevada, the pictorial arborglyphs, especially those by talented artists and skillful carvers, are always the most delightful.

... the Basque sheepherder humanizes an otherwise unrelentingly pristine natural environment. Thus, whether wandering through an aspen grove or contemplating a stone monument he enjoys a certain illusion of not being alone. Rather, despite his solitude a man can commune with the ghosts of past generations and enjoy some small sense of purpose as he leaves his own mark as a legacy for future herders.

— William A. Douglass, Basque Sheepherders of the American West, p. 63.

It is important to understand that sheepherders were carving their messages and drawings for their own enjoyment and for other sheepherders. They did not anticipate our current degree of access to areas that were once so much more remote. In fact, some of them would have been horrified at the amount of exposure their once-private expressions have received! Others would be gratified that their strange time in Nevada herding sheep has been duly noted by arborglyph scholars and enthusiasts.
 

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