Art in the Aspens

Beautiful Basque tree carvings tell tales of adventure
by Jane Braxton Little, from High Country News
November-December 2010
Add to My MSN

Basque Library, University of Nevada, Reno


Content Tools

Related Content

This Thanksgiving, Know Your History

Thanksgiving is quickly approaching, and many people gathering for turkey will have no idea what the...

Guerrilla Grafters: Turning Urban Streets into Orchards

The Guerrilla Grafters—a renegade urban gardening group in San Francisco—illegally graft branches fr...

Preservation Through Biocultural Diversity

Tackling endangered species and languages together may be an effective strategy.

How to Invent a Language

When English isn’t good enough, innovative inventors set out to create their own languages. Most fai...

 

Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe is on his hands and knees examining the trunk of a fallen aspen tree. Between peeling slabs of white bark the size of headstones, he points out a section carved with mysterious shapes and barely legible words. “This could be ‘Urepeleko.’ This guy must have written the place he is coming from—Urepele, in southwestern France,” he concludes, his grin deepening the laugh lines that frame his blue eyes.

Mallea-Olaetxe studies history in trees, recording the engravings left by Basque sheepherders in aspen groves throughout the mountains of the American West. Over more than a century, starting in the mid-1800s, thousands of Basque men left their villages in the Pyrenees mountains of northern Spain and southern France, immigrating to America in search of better lives. Some were driven by adventure; others were the younger sons of large families who had no hope of inheriting the ancestral farm. In the mid-1900s, still others came to escape the harsh rule of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Many of the newcomers ended up working for large companies, tending flocks of sheep. For months on end, they lived in remote aspen groves near the meadows where their charges fattened up. Alone and far from their families, homesick herders carved their names, thoughts, and fantasies on the trees. Some of the images are elaborate, evoking the deep yearnings of lonesome men in a strange new land. Some are crudely pornographic.

The carvings in this copse of aspens, high above the east shore of Lake Tahoe, are part of an array that stretches from Yosemite National Park north to Plumas National Forest in the Sierra Nevada. Mallea-Olaetxe moves to a standing tree with deeply etched outlines of a couple. The woman wears boots and an old-country dress, the man a beret and a fancy belt. They are shaking hands: a wedding, perhaps, Mallea-Olaetxe says. Nearby, on another tree, a donkey nurses a gigantic snake while a foal looks on. “Where this comes from I do not know,” he says, flashing a bemused smile.

What Mallea-Olaetxe does know, after recording more than 27,000 carvings over two decades, is that these are not just random scratches. Arborglyphs, as they’re called, chronicle a unique and little-known Western way of life. It’s a working-class history, “saturated with humanity,” written by the people themselves without revision by rulers or powerful employers. “This is not history by some academic in an ivory tower,” he says, with a wink at the irony that he, a recently retired college instructor of Basque history and language, is assembling it. “It’s as democratic and down-to-earth as history can get.”

Old age is claiming the aspen groves, here and throughout the West. Many are not regenerating, a problem scientists blame largely on fire suppression and warming temperatures. Mallea-Olaetxe, 70, now works as fast as he can to catalog the undocumented arborglyphs. With his goatee already flecked with gray, he is realistic about his odds of success. “I’d have to live 200 more years,” he says. “We cannot help it. Nature will claim them.”

 

Excerpted from High Country News (June 7, 2010), the 2010 Utne Independent Press Award winner for environmental coverage. www.hcn.org  


Previous | 1 | 2 | Next






Post a comment below.

 








Pay Now & Save $5!
First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
Country:
Email:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!