|image via yorkstories|
"Nay, I will try these verses, which lately I carved on the green bark of a beech-tree
Mopsus (Virgil, c. 50 B.C.)
I've always just called them tree carvings but technically they're arborglyphs, or sylvaglyphs, "culturally-modified trees" or just tree graffiti. But by whatever name they're personal histories--carved into the bark of a tree. Smooth barked varieties--beech, birch, aspen--are generally preferred and these unique documents--manuscripts in their own right for is not paper itself made from trees?--have begun to capture the attention of scholars.
Professor Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, a specialist in Basque History at the University of Nevada, Reno, documented over 20,000 arborglyphs in the mountains of the western United States, carved by Basque sheepherders who left their own Pyrenees Mountains behind to supply mutton to isolated mining camps. They summered their flocks in the lush meadows of the high Sierra above Lake Tahoe, and left a record of their solitary sojourns including names, dates and images of what they were thinking about: towns back home, bears and buffalo, but often naked women; some carvings are not for the easily offended.
|Arborglyphs by Etienne Maizcorene|
Some like Etienne Maizcorena left a naively artistic, stylistically recognizable body of work. Etienne even created his own forest gallery:
There is historical as well as artistic merit in the arborglyphs. Angie KenCairn, a heritage specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, studies aspen art in the Routt National Forest of Colorado, gleaning information about historic construction projects and stock drives, especially since the herders' usually dated their work. "Much of the oldest art has actually been discovered on standing dead or fallen trees, and the forest service is striving to document these carvings before they disappear. “They’re a cultural resource,” Angie emphasizes. “Defacing them in any way is a federal offense. Anyway, people should be respectful of those who came before them and respect their legacy.”"Aware of the merit of his art, Maizcorena chose a site for his "gallery" near a kanpo handia in Humboldt County, where all his arborglyphs "hang" some eight or nine feet above the ground. Obviously, he did not want anyone touching, overcarving, or disturbing them ... Maizcorena either stood on his horse, or he used a ladder.
— Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe in Speaking Through the Aspens, p.147
|Sego Canyon arborglyph [source]|
Arborglyphs are inherently ephemeral; most of those currently being recorded date no earlier than the 1920s, when shepherding in the west peaked. Earlier "cultural modifications" to the treescape have been felled or lost to the vagaries of fire and drought that afflict any forest, even one with artistic interventions.
In a time when contrived urban interventions like sticking legos on a building are a Very Big Deal, I'm moved by the unaffected authenticity of these rural interventions.
Sources and additional reading:
The best source of information on the Basque sheepherder arborglyphs is a multimedia site by the University of Nevada, Reno Library. The Maizcorena images are from this site.
Dr. Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe published a book "Speaking Through Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada", in 2000. He notes that arborglyphs contain the most comprehensive record of sheepherders compiled anywhere in the American west. yet "Until recently, federal archaeologists and historians made almost no attempt to record the arborglyphs, despite the ephemeral nature of aspens. Their failure was the result of a number of factors, not excluding prejudice against minorities and their cultures and the wholesale dismissal of the arborglyphs as pornography or simple doodling. The inevitable results was that a great portion of this massive data bank was lost."
The quotes from Angie KenCain are from an article about Colorado arborglyphs: "Aspen Diaries" by Kelly Bastone, published in Steamboat magazine.
A PhD student at my alma mater, the University of Bristol, did her thesis on a comparative study of arborglyphs left by WWII soldiers on the peaceful Salisbury plain with those left on the front lines in France. A story about her work in the alumni newsletter inspired this post.