Speaking through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada

By Yocom, Margaret R. | Western Folklore, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Speaking through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada


Yocom, Margaret R., Western Folklore


Speaking through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada. By J. Mallea-Olaetxe. (Reno: University of Nevada Press, [2000] 2008. Pp. 237, including photographs, appendices, notes, bibliography, glossary, index. $39.95, cloth, $29.95, paper.)

J. Mallea-Olaetxe, independent scholar at the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, saw his first aspen tree carving in 1968 in Elko County on his way to a sheepherders' camp. Twenty years later, he began studying these arborglyphs and has now seen about twenty thousand of them and has catalogued twelve thousand in a computer database. His appendices provide impressive statistics as well as instructions for collecting information about arborglyphs. Several projects have grown out of his research, including the rebuilding of the Wheeler Sheep Camp near Sierraville, California. Although Speaking through the Aspens would benefit from more research in folklore, it makes an important contribution to folk cultural studies of the United States and to discussions of cross-AÜantic transmission of tradition.

Mallea-Olaetxe declares that arborglyphs, found in eleven western states, provide "an amazing data bank of news directly related to Basque immigration." Each herder becomes "a part-time recorder of history" in this "democratic approach to history writing" (13). Since Basque herders in the Pyrenees very seldom carved on trees but made many wooden objects for farm use, MalleaOlaetxe suggests that tree carving became a tradition very early among Hispanic and Anglo sheepherders in the West, and that the Basques who arrived after the 1 890s found the art already well established (17). The arborglyphs, he writes, may have been parüy inspired by the Indian petroglyphs.

Sheepherders carved during summer months, alone with dieir herds in the high country. Almost all carvers recorded their name and the date; some included pictorial representations and statements. The trees were their co-creators. Rather than cut deeply into the bark, sheepherders scratched the surface with knives, bullets, and other sharp tools. After a few years, the tree closed the incision with a dark scar. Carvers preferred aspen with white bark since cuts on that surface created a black scar that showed off their carvings to advantage. As the tree grew, the scar widened; the black letters and figures also widened and darkened, becoming more appealing.

In Chapter 3, the best section of the book, Mallea-Olaetxe sets the carvings in their occupational context. He details what the sheepherding life was like for these men (and some women) and discusses what the arborglyphs tell about such work. Carvers repeat several themes: hard work ("Long live the Basques, in the whole world there are none like them for work" [80]), view of self and body, daily routine of sheepherding, food and drink, dry and barren land, living close to animals ("Fuckin' coyotes, a lam [was] killed during siesta time, 20 Sept. 1938, Faustin" [96]; "Sheepherder, keep alert, bears in this area . . . 1935" [94]), the wilderness community, loneliness, money, sheepherding as rite of passage, and more. Worth a chapter on its own is the carvers' practice of carving glyphs in response to existing carvings: trees and groves become conversations, "chat rooms" (98) , "internal memos" (48) for the herders.

From such occupational research, Mallea-Olaetxe suggests that arborglyphs offer alternative views of history. Noting that he has not found any carvings on the sheep vs. cattle theme, popular in conventional history and in films, MalleaOlaetxe writes that, although the existence of tension is undeniable and is acknowledged by older Basques in Nevada, cowboys and sheepherders were usually on good terms. Basque sheepherders told Mallea-Olaetxe, for example, how cowboys often ate at sheep camps and then returned the favor (104).

Folklorists interested in identity formation will find valuable information, though little analysis, here. …

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