Traces of history

Mountain Picassos

Reproductions of Basque tree carvings are on exhibit in Sparks.

Reproductions of Basque tree carvings are on exhibit in Sparks.


Mountain Picassos: Basque Arborglyphs of the Great Basin is on exhibit at Sparks Heritage Museum, 814 Victorian Ave., through Aug. 11. The museum hosts related, Basque-themed events in July. For details, visit

Have you ever noticed that Fallon, Garderville, Winnemucca and several other Nevada towns all have hotels called “The Overland”?

Nevada used to have a large sheepherding industry—one estimate says there were about a million sheep in the state at the turn of the 20th century—and these Overland Hotels, which tend to still have Basque restaurants, used to be bunkhouses for sheepherders, most of whom were Basque immigrants.

According to Patricia Atkinson, the Nevada Arts Council’s folklife director, these sheepherders would work on contracts for a year or two, sometimes five. Supplied with a rifle, a dog and a large herd of sheep, each herder would work alone, camping from June through October in aspen groves. Many of these men left their marks—in the form of drawings called arborglyphs, carved into the smooth, white bark of the aspens.

“They carved names, years, slogans glorifying the Basque country, images of people from home in traditional costume … traditional house types, images of home,” said Atkinson. “Some were done more crudely, some with more expertise.”

One notable subject matter omission suggests that perhaps the herders liked to get their minds off work at the end of the day. “No sheep carvings,” Atkinson said. “Nobody’s ever seen a sheep carving.”

Over years and decades, as the trees grew, the sheepherders’ lines were transformed from thin knife cuts into prominent, textured, black scars in the bark.

The profession eventually dwindled, but observant hikers can still see these carvings in remote, forested spots such as Maggie Summit, Hinkey Summit, Genoa Peak and Arc Dome Wilderness. There are also quite a few on Reno’s Peavine Mountain.

Aspen trees don’t live forever—about 80 years, Atkinson estimated—so the traces of this forest folk art will eventually die out. On Peavine, about half the trees that have carvings have died since the mid-1980s.

In the late 1960s, Jean and Phillip Earl began documenting the carvings. They realized that photographs weren’t quite the right medium for recording them, since the “canvasses” were rounded tree trunks and, prior to the smartphone panoramic photo feature, it wasn’t always possible to get the whole image into one frame. Gravestone-type rubbings on paper weren’t quite right either. The paper would rip. Jean devised a method of recording the carvings by tacking a sheet of fabric tightly around a tree trunk and making a rubbing with black wax.

The Earls have made over 150 of these reproductions, and 26 of them are in an exhibit that’s been traveling the state and is on display in Sparks this summer. Atkinson is co-curator of the exhibit, along with Sheryln Hayes Zorn from the Nevada Historical Society.

Seeing these reproductions in frames in a gallery is quite different from stumbling upon a cluster of them in the wilderness. The surprise value of seeing them in the forest is something you can only get in the forest. And the “adult content”—drawings of women as imagined by young men living in isolation—that’s conspicuously common on the trees has been left out this survey to keep it PG. But the reproductions are still a joy to look at. They exude a sense of care and affection for the original works, and they do maintain a lot of the carvings’ charm. And while the aim of making them was to document a form of folk art that will eventually fade from history, they work, for now anyway, as an armchair travel guide to one of the not-too-hard-to-access wonders in our own backyard.