Arborglyphs

This is something few people have ever heard of. If you look at the word, “arbor” refers to trees and “glyph” refers to writing. Trees don’t write, but some people write on trees. The word has come to be used to describe a virtually unknown tradition in the American West. When sheep ranching began, shepherds from the Basque country in Spain and France were brought over to tend the sheep, something Basques had done for many centuries in their homeland. The life of a shepherd was a lonely, solitary one for extended periods of time. Shepherds would sometimes carve messages or figures in the bark of trees, particularly aspens, and these are called “arborglyphs.” A researcher from the University of Nevada, Dr. Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe (himself of Basque ancestry) has found some 20,000 of them in California, Nevada, and Oregon. They date to around 1900 and for several decades after that. The shepherds carved the bark, which over time healed and the lines gradually darkened. Aspens live no more than a century, so many of the arborglyphs have been found on fallen trees. The arborglyphs come in many forms. Some are inscriptions in Basque, some are carvings of animals, people, sheep and some are crudely sexual. Taken together, they form a unique testimony to the lonely life of shepherds in the West.

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