In search of arborglyphs

By Tim Hauserman

Man on a horse

From the late 19th to mid-20th Centuries, herds of sheep roamed the High Sierra meadows, managed by sheepherders; most of them were Basque immigrants. The sheepherders eased their boredom by making their mark on the landscape: carving symbols and artwork on aspen trees where the sheep grazed. I was recently given the opportunity to discover some of this artwork, known as arborglyphs, with two passionate devotees to the art.

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Nancy Hadlock’s mother is Basque, but she didn’t dive into Basque culture until she attended the University of Nevada, Reno, home of the Center for Basque Studies and a Basque line of books published by University of Nevada Press. Richard Potashin is an artist who was interested in calligraphy and human-made art found in nature, such as pictographs. When he was a ranger at the Manzanar National Historic Site near Lone Pine and she was a ranger at nearby Death Valley National Park; they met at an arborglyph gathering.

“It brought us together and for 16 years we have been pursuing this passion together,” said Hadlock.

Carvings frequently are caricatures. And prominent noses are a common feature. 
A carving showing a hand wrapped around the tree, with another hand on the other side of the tree (not visible).

I met Hadlock and Potashin on top of Monitor Pass on a late spring morning. The pass is a beautiful wind-swept expanse of sage, grasses and scattered groves of aspens. While spending a few hours here is a relaxing experience, I could see how spending a few months might get tedious.

The artwork we found on the trees included caricature-like carvings of faces, calligraphic cursive of the artists’ names, carvings of hands wrapped around trees and odes to boxers. There were also quite a few expressions of loneliness in the form of a seductive woman, a couple in an embrace and this message under someone’s name: “No mas Nevada.”

Hadlock and Potashin view the artists as old friends. Several times they noted the work of the same artist 1 mile apart. They could tell who it was because of his style. The sheepherders would come to America on a contract over several years and would often return to the same locale year after year. While many of the Basques would say, “No mas Nevada,” after a few years, some remained in the region, as evidenced by the Basque restaurants throughout western Nevada and the prominence in the region of the Laxalts, a Basque family whose members include former Governor Paul Laxalt, who was also a senator; a writer, Robert Laxalt, who started University of Nevada Press, and Adam Laxalt, the current Nevada Attorney General.

While the carvings themselves are fascinating, for Hadlock and Potashin they are a window into who these people were. One carving showed all the years that a carver had been coming to that location starting in 1949 into the early 1950s. Other carvings show the heritage and language, interest in sporting activities and, of course, depictions of naked women.

Similar to the mandala sand paintings of Tibetan Buddhist monks, arborglyphs are not designed to live forever. Individual aspen trees, unlike larger pine trees nearby, are relatively short lived; few last more than 100 years. Also, their thin bark and the harsh conditions at high altitude change the trees over the years and modify the appearance of the carvings. Some trees have morphed in a few decades to the point where the original carving is unrecognizable. Surely, many wonderful carvings from the early 20th Century have disappeared as the trees died, rotted and returned to the ground.

The carvings that seem to have held up the best are the ones that were lightly carved into the bark because the deeper gouges tend to scar the tree more rapidly.

“Aspen bark is thin, so the artists just used their old jackknifes or a nail, piece of obsidian or even a thumbnail,” said Richard.

A couple in an embrace.

Historical carvings can be found throughout the Sierra. Some carvings are along travel routes between the winter home of the sheep in Nevada or California valleys. Perhaps the most detailed carvings are in the High Sierra where the sheepherders spent an extended period in the same location. In the Tahoe region, carvings can be found in Aspen groves at Page Meadows, Marlette Lake, Hope Valley, Palisade Creek trail on Donner Summit and Red Lake.

The artwork is a fascinating connection to a previous time and lifestyle in the Sierra. If you locate a carving, treat it with respect and don’t add your own to the work. Fortunately, most of the carvings are not located along a trail and can only be found by some slow and gentle exploring through the aspen groves. I found it an enchanting way to spend a few hours.

Rubbings made of arborglyphs by Hadlock and Potashin are featured in the traveling exhibit “Mountain Picassos,” which will be on display from July 16 to Sept. 7 at the Nevada Arts Council OXS Gallery in Carson City. | (775) 687-6680, nvculture.org

Read more on it |Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada” by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, published by University of Nevada Press, is a fascinating read by a Basque scholar who has spent decades studying thousands of tree carvings.

Aspen gathering | Join Hadlock and Potashin in their research at an event sponsored by Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and the Eastern Sierra Interpretative Association from Aug. 18 to 20. For more information or to sign up, contact Hadlock at aspenluv1@gmail.com.

Traveling show | “Mountain Picassos” will be on display from July 16 to Sept. 7 at the Nevada Arts Council OXS Gallery in Carson City | (775) 687-6680, nvculture.org