Mystery of the arborglyphs

Near Mono Lake on the Sierras’ eastern edge, old aspen tree trunks bear witness to Basque sheepherders from the 1930s

Nude on aspen, proof that, yes, even Basque sheepherders think about sex.

Nude on aspen, proof that, yes, even Basque sheepherders think about sex.

Photo by Brendan Fletcher

To Joaquin, the woman probably represented the homeland. She was elegant and graceful, dancing to a music that only he could hear. Her head was tilted back, chin jutting forcefully out as she concentrated on her moves. She lifted her Spanish-style skirt well above her knees in a manner that might have seemed daring in the 1930s, but for him, it was exactly how he wanted it. Her right hand held the edge of the skirt up behind her, fingers gently poised like a violinist’s on a bow, while her foot arched outward, toes pointing gracefully toward the ground.

Maybe the women back home danced like this; maybe he used to watch his mother or sisters teasing the men in the village with their skillful moves. In any case, he would have thought, it needs a signature. So he wrote his name vertically in simple calligraphy above the drawing—“Joaquin Gandara”—and incised the year into the tree as well: 1936. Maybe the next sheepherder will see it and be reminded of home, because the aspen trees, for these men, were message centers, posters, banners and canvasses all rolled into one.

In California, aspen trees are one of the few trees that turn a spectacular color in the fall. Their leaves change into a gold made even more brilliant by the autumn air, especially when seen against the bright Californian sky. For years they’ve challenged writers and poets to come up with the perfect metaphor for their leaves that seem to constantly shimmer in the light. But while others have been trying to capture the beauty of the aspen tree in words or images, the aspen trees themselves have become the bearers of an art and history unknown to most Californians.

Basque sheepherders—by the early 1900s these two words were almost synonymous. Having come to the American West from the Basque Country of Spain and France to seek their fortune, these young men’s skills were soon put to the lonely occupation of sheepherding. In summer they roamed the high country from Bakersfield to Oregon, taking with them in their care thousands of sheep to every one man. It is there where their history and traces of their lives can be found, carved into the trunks of aspens throughout the West.

This particular grove of trees was discovered during a recent camping trip to Mono Lake. If you head south from the lake and drive along a dirt road you come to a fence. On the other side of the fence is a stream, and on the other side of the stream is a grove that has a spectacular view of the jagged eastern side of the Sierra. Someone in the camping group had been out walking and came across this grove, where every second tree, or so it seems, is carved with words or pictures.

At the time that Joaquin and his contemporaries were working as sheepherders, living a solitary life in the high mountains of California and Nevada, the Basque territory in Europe was going through one of the most violent periods in its long history. The same year that Joaquin drew his dancing lady, Spain was plunged into a civil war that continued for three years. When it had finally abated, an estimated 500,000 people had been killed and an additional quarter- to a half-million had fled persecution.

Though the Spanish Civil War and the plight of the Basque people were taking place thousands of miles from here, the history of that part of Europe and the history of the American West became intimately tied through the work of the sheepherders.

While searching for an explanation of the carvings found at Mono Lake we came across Professor Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, who teaches Basque history at the University of Nevada, Reno. If anyone knows about the tree carvings, it is Mallea. Having started studying this phenomenon in 1988, he has recorded “at least 20,000” arborglyphs, as they are known, in the West. He maintains a database of 13,000 to 14,000 carvings in his computer, and believes that what he has seen “is probably a very small part of what’s out there.”

More hormonally motivated bark art

Photo by Brendan Fletcher

“It’s mostly history,” he maintains. “For me that’s what they are; the Valley was history. If we didn’t have these carvings, how would you know who was herding sheep on this mountain, for example. There is nothing written on that. The Basque country, being very small, and the Basque people being very few, it is important for them to know where everybody went and where they herded, how long, all of those things. And the only information comes from the trees.” The trees—which are subject to lightning, fire, felling, vandalism and just plain old age.

On average, aspens live between 80 and 100 years, which means that the names and carvings of those who went through the area in the early 1900s will soon disappear into the ground, if they haven’t done so already. And that would be sad, because what you can glean from these carvings is a detailed portrait of life as a sheepherder, details that you can’t find in the history books.

In order to make a carving in an aspen tree, you don’t need a hammer and chisel. On the contrary, such violent marks could permanently damage the tree and end up as large black blobs on the clear white trunks. All that is needed is a small knife, or, as Mallea informs, even something as soft as a thumbnail would do.

An initial incision is made in the trunk, so faint that it is barely visible. And then all you can do is wait. Wait for nature to take over and turn the initial carvings of a man into the artwork of a tree.

“You don’t see much until three or four years,” says Mallea, “when the tree starts working the incision. It opens up and it starts oozing sap out of the incision. And that sap eventually will turn dark.” Dark carvings on a bone-white trunk.

“It is the tree who does the carving, not the herder,” he adds. “The herders did not really do this carving other than the very initial, and how it would look 20 years down the road, they had no idea.”

The sheepherders didn’t make these carvings hoping that people in the future would study them, or that their grandchildren would find them. The carvings were done for themselves and the other herders, to pass messages on, to leave hints about nice places to go or other herders to stay away from, to reminisce about the homeland, to think of women, to pass the long summer days, or, in the case of Joaquin, to express their political beliefs.

Spain in the 1930s was a time of social, political and economic upheaval. People rebelled against the Roman Catholic Church, which had held considerable influence for hundreds of years. The monarchy was defeated by political parties favoring a republican form of government, labor movements gained power and the Basques sought autonomy from the state. Land and wealth were taken from the rich and redistributed among the lower classes.

By the second half of the 1930s, General Francisco Franco had come to power with the Nationalists. His party of monarchists and fascists regained control over much of the state, and in 1937 he bombed Guernica, the ancient capital of Basque territory, in a Nazi Germany-style Luftwaffe, killing 900 people and destroying the town completely.

Carved pamphleteering from Joaquin Gandara.

Photo by Brendan Fletcher

With no one in the high country to hear his reaction to the plight of his homeland, Joaquin carved his thoughts into the aspen trees, long political essays against the monarchy, fascism, the church and the rich, and showing support for a free agrarian republic.

“Long live the republic. Death to the fascists,” he wrote in 1937.

And on July 27, 1938: “Fascism and communism are the two extremes of savagery. Long live the liberal agrarian republic.”

Then in what appears to be 1944, despite being five years after the end of the war: “Death to the fascists, separatists, the clerics, the fanatics, the dictators and the politicians and the wealthy. Long live the free republic …”

It was only a few years earlier, in 1936, that he was signing his name and drawing beautiful women.

This is more than just carving your lover’s name into a tree. This is European history being played out in the mountains of the American West. And this is art.

But not everyone thinks so.

“There have been others who wrote about these things,” says Mallea, “but I don’t think they took this phenomenon seriously. They thought they were doodling. But it’s much more than that. I mean, like Joaquin Gandara, he was pouring his soul out; he’s really making a statement here, a very serious one about his political views.”

But these sheepherders were also young men, and carvings of women in respectable and not-so-respectable poses are easy to find. For a while the Forest Service didn’t want anyone to see them, believing them pornographic. But Mallea disagrees.

“There’s no pornography here,” he says. “I mean, none of these are for sale, and it’s just a pastime. I’d say it was therapy, very good therapy for a lot of these herders who were very lonely. It’s kind of ridiculous.”

Even more ridiculous when you realize that any day now, these trees could become victim to forces of wild nature and human nature, and what is now a fascinating journey through the aspen groves of Basque and American history could be lost to us forever.