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.
Videos and Audio Programs
- Basque Tree Carving: Legend in Nevada. Produced by Instructional Media Services, University of Nevada, Reno. 18 minutes.
- Talking Trees: Basque Sheepherder Arborglyphs. Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe. Managing Aspens in Western Landscapes Conference, Utah State University Forestry Extension. September 21-24, 2004, Cedar City, Utah.
- Tree Carvings. Tristan Clum of KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona. National Public Radio program, July 6, 2000. 5 minutes.
- Interview with
- Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque
Tree Carvings in California and Nevada by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, the definitive
work on the subject by the foremost expert. Published by the University
of Nevada Press in 2000. Partial full-text. The book is also available for
- Carving Out History: The Basque Aspens by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe in Forest History Today, Spring/Fall 2001.
- Basque Tree Carvings by Richard Lane in Northeastern Nevada Historical Society Quarterly Vol. 1, no. 3, Winter 1971.
- Aspen Art Study Reveals Information about Early Basque Sheepherders in Nevada. BLM Press Release, April 20, 1987.
- In the Sheep: Aspen Carvings As Indicators of Land Capacity and Use by Kristina Crawford in the Society for California Archaeology Newsletter Vol. 39, no. 1, March 2005: pp. 26-29.
- Historical Land-Use Information from Culturally-Modified Trees by Rikard Andersson, Doctoral thesis, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 2005.
- History That Grows on Trees: The Aspen Carvings of Basque Sheepherders. by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe in Nevada Historical Society Quarterly Spring, 1992.
the Range: Pushing the Boundaries of Arborglyph Documentation by Chris M. Worrell in Forest
History Today Spring/Fall, 2009.
Arborglyphs as Art
- Photos of pictorial arborglyphs in Northern Nevada
- Etienne Maizcorena, arborglyph artist
- Basquos: Interpretive drawings of arborglyphs by Frances Wallace and Hans Reiss
- Wax rubbings by Phillip and Jean Earl
More Information and Activities