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University of Nevada, Reno

Artistic Renderings of the Arborglyphs

The following is a replication of the explanatory text written by the artists who created the Basquos.


The sheep owner in the Carson and Washoe valleys of Nevada sent their flocks and herders up into the Sierra mountain meadows every spring.

The herders were Basques, and they took readily to the mountain terrain that was like their own Pyrenees, where for untold ages their ancestors had guarded sheep.

This collection of drawings, which we have called "Basquos," should have the sub-title "Aspen Art."  It is of the carvings on the aspen trees, done many years ago, by the Basque sheep herders, who summered with their flocks in the meadows above the north and east shores of Lake Tahoe, in the high Sierra.

Hiking through these meadows one summer, we came upon a grove of very large aspen trees — some at least eighteen inches in diameter — and on tree after tree were these intricate and grotesque carvings.

It was an exciting and thrilling "find" to discover them there in the solitude, where the only sounds were the faint rustle of the quaking aspen leaves, and the gurgle of a little stream that ran through the meadow grass.

We decided to sketch them, but the naive quality and queer, sometimes distorted drawing of the designs were lost when simply copied, no matter how carefully we tried to duplicate them, so we decided to thumb tack thin tracing paper to the trees and carefully trace the actual drawings themselves.

This we did, and over three summers of searching we traced seventy-eight carvings, from which we have selected this collection as the most interesting and characteristic.

We covered four areas in our extensive searching:

  1. Murphy Meadows north of Martis Peak, where that mountain slopes down toward the Truckee River.
  2. A chain of meadows south and east of Martis Peak, below the long ridge that leads toward Mt. Rose — where we found the "Troke 12 mi." one, and which was actually twelve miles from Truckee.
  3. A meadow along the trail from Spooner Summit to Marlette Lake — where we found the earliest one of all (1895) with a stylized mask-like face that is almost American Indian in design.
  4. The most productive "gallery" of the four, with the most interesting designs, was the big meadow far above and east of Glenbrook below Genoa Peak.

We found it strange that 1932 seemed to have been the most prolific year, yet the 1932 carvings were in all the different areas — not just in one location as might have been expected.

One stands in the silence among the big trees, and can visualize the flocks of vanished sheep, the faithful dogs, and the solitary sheep herders, who, in the long days of other years, from spring, through summer and into autumn, covered these groves with the patterns and creations of their imagination.

The technical problem we faced after we had completed the tracings was how to reproduce the feeling of the carvings themselves in mere ink and water color rendering.

When the almost white bark of the aspen tree is carved, a raised scar forms around the knife cut, creating a wider line of gray between the carving and the smooth light surface of the tree trunk.

After many trials, we finally developed the distinct stylization that we have used here to convey the quality of the gray scar and still retain the complete detail of the carved design.

We hope that we have succeeded in the attempt to transfer the quaint charm of the actual carvings to a decorative scheme that would still leave them clear to be enjoyed and understood.

Frances R. Wallace
Hans Reiss
View these drawings