by Clare O’Toole
Basque sheepherders have largely been absent from American folklore; their lonely travails did not easily lend themselves to dramatic interpretation. The American cowboy, on the other hand, became a romanticized cult hero, immortalized on the silver screen. His counterpart in the livestock industry of the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the sheepherder ,remained unnoticed, his song unsung.
But there is one form of Basque storytelling that captures the imagination in a quieter yet compelling way – the Basque arborglyphs (tree carvings). Hundreds of thousands of Aspens stretching from Washington to Texas and from California to North Dakota, bear witness to the lives, longings and sentiments of these lonely carvers, immigrant Basque sheepherders who came to America to find a better life. These dutiful men, coming from a uniquely proud and individualist culture, found themselves alone and isolated in a vast landscape, full of predators of which they knew nothing. It was a rude awakening for them, coming as they did from their relatively green and fertile land. Their feet had barely touched American soil, let alone tramped the Nevada desert, when they were charged with protecting and caring for up to one and a half thousand ewes and their lambs. They began this work with nothing but a horse or donkey, their dogs and their sheep for companionship, a canvas tent and a gun for protection. These young Basque men had to learn to stand their ground and make peace with their predicament or risk becoming “sagebrushed” (going crazy) or worse, admitting defeat, looking for alternative work, or heading back to their far-away homeland.
Arborglyphs became a means for the sheepherder to humanize his landscape, declare the presence of his own personality amongst his natural surroundings, calling out to his fellow sheepherders and leaving a legacy for all those who followed in his footprints. Basques who made their way to America during the gold rush era, whether coming via Argentina or direct from the Basque country via Ellis Island, were not captured in any population census. Often the aspens are the only record of Basque immigration, especially since the most popular motif, to be found on eighty percent of the trees, is the carver’s name, date and place of birth.
Cheryl Surface interview by Tiffany Moore
With little or no time to acquaint themselves with American culture, before they were put to work tending sheep, these men held on to powerful associations with their homeland. In later years, as the practice of personal documentation became an established facet of the Basque sheepherder’s experience, messages became bolder. Some trees reflect the carver’s political concerns during such crisis times as the 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War or during World War II. They are generally written in the Basque tongue or in “phonetic” English and are therefore hard for a non-Basque to decipher. Where the carver attempts English; spellings add to the overall humor, such as “seeps” or “chips” indicating “sheep” and “fok,” “chit,” and “sanabich” which does not stand for “sandwich” but, more likely, what the sheepherder might be tempted to utter when a cougar savaged his “chips” in the night, or the camp tender was late bringing in supplies.
Generally, Basques are not known as complainers. It goes against their pride, and therefore humor was used as a powerful tool to raise complaints and fears to a higher level of wit and bravado. Arborglyph inscriptions might seem pretty restrained compared to our modern habits of self-expression. The so called “pornographic” images of naked women reveal very little that could be considered seriously salacious. Some might be accompanied by a comment about an escapade with a local prostitute, eager to cash in on the loneliness and longings of these displaced, hardworking souls. Yet the speaking Aspens were not carved for our benefit but rather to create a conversation amongst brethren. Although it was not considered manly to admit to loneliness and fear, if such emotions expressed through humor, the sheepherders lament was acceptable to his brethren. Each individual knew full well what was the reality behind the laconic laments and references to home.
The images as we see them are not as they would originally have appeared. The distinctive dark marks standing out against the pale bark of the Aspen can look like brushstrokes. But they are actually the result of scarring and take a few years to form after the initial incisions have been made in the bark. If the carver applied too heavy a touch to his design and cut too deeply into the bark, the resulting scarring would blur the desired image and outlines might merge into one another.
Aspen trees are not long-lived; it is unusual to find carvings over a hundred years old. The trees tend to die off by around the sixty year mark, many even sooner. They fall prey to the ravages of development, fire, vandals, disease and normal old age. In Nevada, Basque tree carvings can still be found high above the east shores of Lake Tahoe and on the Peavine mountain range. Joxe Mallea Olaetxe, a UNR Basque history instructor, has catalogued over 20,000 trees in these locations in a passionate bid to preserve what remains of a living Basque museum. His dedication is responsible for bringing recognition and respect to this aspect of Basque culture that has for too long been overlooked.