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Arborglyphs –Basque immigrant sheepherders left their marks on aspen trees in the American West

Still Waters

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Throughout the mountains of the American West, carvings hidden on the trunks of aspen trees tell the stories of the sheepherders who made them as they passed through with their flocks. Most of the men who etched these arborglyphs into the living trees were Basques who, starting with the Gold Rush of the 1840s, had immigrated from the Basque Country that straddles the Pyrenees Mountains.

Our experience of documenting arborglyphs – “lertxun-marrak” in Basque – has deepened over time. At first, we simply tried to decipher what was on the tree. It can be hard to tell what is scarred bark and what is a carving. Gradually, we got better at deciphering the carvings and now hope to spot the oldest and most ornate.

We also came to appreciate the different styles and themes, like in signatures and writing. One herder carves his name, the date and his hometown; another delves into politics; and another carves a hoped-for female companion.


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