Exploring Basque Tree Carvings During Social Isolation

May 11, 2020

During this time of social distancing, local podcaster Fil Corbitt has been drawn to remote forests in the Sierra Nevada where they can spot tree carvings, a historic tradition of Basque immigrants. Fil explores these arborglyphs in this audio postcard from the mountains around Lake Tahoe.

Pretty much every day since social distancing started, I’ve been coming to this aspen grove, one of the several groves on this creek behind my house. Right now we’re at about 8000 ft. elevation in the Eastern Sierra Nevada and there is still quite a bit of snow. The aspens are all dormant, so no leaves right now. The color palette is pretty much entirely white. Whitebark and white snow, except for over here. 

An aspen carving, which is now over 70 years old that says: Jesus Arriaga 11-7-1966.
Credit Fil Corbitt of Van Sounds

On this aspen there are some black marks, a carving. It says: “Jesus Arriaga - 11/7/1966.”

There’s a good chance you’ve seen tree carvings before. They’re pretty common at rest stops and popular hiking trails. And you’ll usually see things like: “Jay loves Sheri” or some initials inside a heart. But these kinds of carvings, these Jesus kinds of carvings way out here off the trail, seem different. For one, they’re old: 1960, 1953. There’s one I found across the creek from 1922. And the second thing that makes them different from the name hearts/name carvings is that they’re always just one person. Alone.

These carvings are Basque arborglyphs. Markings left by sheepherders who were mostly from the Basque country between France and Spain. The Basques migrated to the American West in large numbers through the early twentieth century. A lot of them ended up here, in Nevada, and a lot of them worked as shepherds.

The life of a shepherd in the Nevadan mountains was a lonely one. Often they’d venture into the hills — mind you, in a totally dry and foreign place — and would go weeks and sometimes months without seeing another human. Jesus Arriaga, the guy from this carving, was one of these shepherds. 

One clue [that he was a shepherd] is that it’s usually a full name. It’s usually Spanish or French, and if they write the date, it’s European style with day/month/year. So 11/7/66 meant he was here on July 11,1966.

The second clue is that I googled his name and found a video of him talking about his first nights in America:

First Night. Full Moon. It was raining and this goat starts scratching his belly and he pushed that fence down and all the sheep just demolished that whole field in a full moon. That was the first experience I had.

A dormant aspen grove at the end of Winter. Sheepherders would pitch camp in groves like this, near water.
Credit Fil Corbitt of Van Sounds

The loneliness was serious. But for the most part, it was a silent and uneventful loneliness. The shepherds would keep an eye out for predators. They’d keep the sheep near grass and water.

There’s a book called Speaking Through the Aspens by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe.  He’s a researcher and photographer who wrote about these carvings and spent decades researching them. 

Fil: “So, why aspen? Is there a specific reason why people choose to carve in aspen?”

Joxe: “Well, absolutely. Because the aspens are beautiful, right? And they are usually around the water. So where is the sheepherder going to pitch his camp? He needs water. Under the aspen trees is where they usually camp. And besides, you know the aspen has a beautiful white bark. So you don’t need much of a scratch… you just need to scratch that to come up a few years later with a beautiful carving.”

They’d carve their names into the bark out of boredom, but they’d also carve to communicate with other shepherds, a sort of message board that took 3-5 years before the tree healed up and revealed the message. 

When I spoke to Joxe, he said something to me after I turned the recorder off. He said, he thinks the reason the shepherds carved their name into a tree is because at that moment what they needed was a witness. 

An arborglyph in the Jarbidge Wilderness of Northwestern Nevada.
Credit Fil Corbitt of Van Sounds

Two weeks after all non-essential businesses shut down in Nevada I posted a photo of a carving on Instagram and got a DM from a listener who said: “Hey that’s my uncle!” I’ve talked to cousins and daughters and have swapped secrets at the Basque restaurants of where to find the funniest porno carvings.

But in that way, they’ve accomplished exactly what they set out to do, to tell people who was where, when, and to make a connection.

But most of all, what these carvings have been to me is exactly what Joxe said: a witness. In this time of social distancing, that has meant a lot. To be able to walk out into the woods alone and read the names of all the other people who, a long time ago, were alone here too.

Fil Corbitt is the creator of the Van Sounds podcast.