The Basque Arborglyphs of the West— Carved Messages, a “Porno Grove” and Memes from the Past

Shelby Herbert searched two states, five counties, two National Forests, a National Park, a library and a bar for answers about the cultural value of Basque tree carvings in the Mountain West.

Iñaki Arrieta Baro, head of the Jon Bilbao Basque Library at the University of Nevada, Reno, pictured with one of the library’s arborglyph samples.

I’m sitting at JT’s Basque Bar in Gardnerville, in front of a plate piled high with a heroic amount of brisket and matchstick fries. This mountain of starch and hearty protein is a heroic endeavor for a lapsed-vegan like myself. I know that I will be working away at this enormous cut of meat — which a hostess told me came directly from the owner’s ranch — for my next two meals. Off to the side, a highball glass of blasphemously delicious Basque immigrant invented Picon Punch: a sweet and tonsil-blistering cocktail that takes effect after just a few sips (be this from the potency of the ingredients, the slight rise in elevation from Reno to Gardnerville, or simply my weak constitution — I’m not sure).

The interior of the dining hall is not unlike a museum, with its walls dense with framed newspaper clippings, old photos, and Belle Epoque posters of the Basque country. I overhear local patrons talking about road closures, their children’s prom, and a moose sighting near Carson City. But I’m not in Gardnerville for the food, but to find Basque arborglyphs (“tree carvings”), unaware that some delightfully startling samples are just a few feet away — hanging up in the restrooms.

JT’s Basque bar in Gardnerville.

The carvings I’m looking for were left behind by Basque shepherds on the skin of aspen trees throughout the Sierra Nevada mountain range, as well as a few scattered groves in Idaho and eastern Nevada. The carvings usually contain the names and areas of origin of the carvers, as well as the date they were carved — rendering them important records for historical and cultural analysis. Certain Basque historians have developed the ability to track the “hand” of individual “artists” throughout their grazing paths through handwriting analysis and by observing repeated artistic subjects: animals, scripture, buildings, and sometimes obscene jokes and caricatures.

These carvings were contagious — memetic, even — among the communities where they originated. In contemporary times, the tradition is passed down to second and third generation Basque-Americans, and has even spread to Nevada’s contemporary livestock workers of South and Central American origin.

An approximation of the remaining locations of Basque tree-carvings throughout the American West. Data acquired from: the United States Geological Survey, National Parks Service, and Speaking Through the Aspens by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe.

The Basques, who call themselves Euskaldunak, are a unique and historically marginalized culture inhabiting the border area between Spain and France in the Pyrenees Mountains. Their language, Eusk, is an ancient linguistic isolate that is completely separate from both French and Spanish (though many native Basques read and write in either language in formal settings). Eusk is theorized to predate the arrival of Indo-European languages on the continent by thousands of years.

Ravenous from a two hour drive and an unsuccessful search for carved trees in South Lake Tahoe, I hack into the cut in front of me. Almost as soon as I could stuff my face, I’m joined by Marie-Louise Lekumberry, a second generation Basque-American who co-owns the bar with her brother, J.B.. She tells me that their late father, Jean, came to the United States from Ortzaize, a village in the Basque province of Lower Navarre on the French side of the Pyreneese. The bar itself had been a boarding house where earlier waves of Basque immigrants frequented to build networks and smoothen their integration process. The structure was moved — piece by piece — from Virginia City to Gardnerville, made into JT’s Bar in 1955, and purchased by Jean in the 60s.

Following this brief history, Marie-Louise bids me to meet with her after I finish (or box up) the insane amount of meat still sitting in front of me; whereafter she takes me into the men’s room.

There (above in the photograph), in a huge shadow box frame, are photos and lifted bark from an assortment of tree-carvings. Marie-Louise gestures modestly towards their contents.

“There it is. Porno Grove,” she says, rolling the hard R’s in a brief imitation of her father’s accent.

The subjects of these are not what I expected to be sought after by historians and cultural anthropologists. They were, after all, created by bored working-class men — boys — in the woods. Some are too obscene for words, but one’s imagination might wander to the vulgarities spray painted beneath an overpass, or crawled on the walls of a bathroom stall. They are at home here.

Next door, she shows me a nude female figure rendered in a similar fashion to the precise, minimalistic carvings observed in “Porno Grove;” only, the medium is entirely different. She is painted over a slab of aged wood in inky brown “sheep-branding” paint.

“You can’t mark a sheep with a cattle brand because their hides aren’t as thick,” says Marie-Louise. “They have to use this type of paint or dye instead — that’s why we call it a sheep brand.” she flicks her wrist in a pantomime of the artist

“We couldn’t leave the ladies’ room empty,” says Lekumberry. “People would get upset, of course.”

Marie-Louise takes me to where she has several ancient suitcases — the type with brass clasps and velvet upholstery on the inside. They are neatly stacked on top of each other and labeled with luggage tags containing the names, as well as the birth and death dates of their previous owners: a library of lives. She tells me that the items in the suitcases belonged to some of the Basque shepherds who rented rooms at JT’s when it was still a boarding house, and that she curated them by tracing their lives back through several other former boarding houses throughout Nevada and the West.

She explains that once these shepherds had surpassed the marrying age and lost connections to loved ones back in Basque Country, it became prudent to remain in the United States. So they grew old and died here; half a continent and an entire ocean away from home.

Those trunks contain some of the last traces of evidence that “David Etcheverry” — who passed away nearly half a century ago — ever existed: a worn leather wallet, a tin of Prince Albert pipe tobacco, some handwritten letters. A pair of denim work pants that Marie-Louise lifts out and holds up to her waist — she is not a particularly tall woman, but the legs barely touch the ground.

“You see,” she says. “Basque men are very short.”

At a separate point in my tree-carving odyssey, I got to witness a different type of curation when I visited Iñaki Arrieta Baro at the Jon Bilbao Basque Library at University of Nevada, Reno, of which he is the head librarian. He immediately gave me a brief history on the local presence and influence of Basque sheepherders.

“The first Basques arrived in the West in the middle of the 19th century during the California Gold Rush,” Baro said.

“Once their focus started moving away from the gold, they started taking care of cattle, and later, sheepherding. And in the last part of the 19th century, these sheepherders would be spending weeks alone in the mountains, where they started carving — and we can still see examples of that. And then during the 20th century, with the large number of sheepherders in the area, we began to see an increasing number of carvings in the aspen groves of the Sierra Nevada — as well as a few other [scattered] areas in the West.”

UNR’s Jon Bilbao library hosts several arborglyph specimens, as well as many other items and literature related to Basque culture in Nevada.

“But why did they carve? Mostly because they were bored,” he says. “They needed to use their time when they weren’t taking care of the sheep, so this is what they did.”

“It wasn’t a form of communication?” I ask.

“So, here’s the thing the carvings themselves are difficult to see [when they’re fresh.] It’s not like they appear in a minute; you can’t immediately see what’s carved there,” Baro explained. “It would have taken other shepherds far too long to see the carving for it to be an effective method of communication. And especially since the places they were doing it were so remote!”

I had some difficulty making sense of Baro’s observation about the way that fresh tree carvings developed. “Slowly…” as if they were Polaroid photos? But my chance meeting with Marie-Louise corroborated Baro’s claim entirely, as she explained her first-hand account of the mainstream tree-carving technique among the shepherds.

“My dad took me up to the groves when I was young, and I’d see him carving — and so I wanted to try it too, of course,” she said. “I took out a pocket knife and started gashing in my name — really just hacking away. But my dad stopped me and showed me how to use a tenpenny nail to just delicately scratch the surface of the skin — right up until you sink it into the green part. That’s because when the aspens scar, it expands. It would be impossible to see after a few years if you cut too deep.”

Marie-Louise Lekumberry with photos of her late father Jean’s carvings. Jean would habitually carve his name with the current year.

The carvings are slow to develop, and even slower to disappear. However, individual aspen trees only live about a hundred years; meaning that the markings carved into their bark are completely ephemeral. The year 2022 rings in the near-complete extinction of the first wave of carvings left behind by the earliest Basque immigrants who arrived here in the days of the Comstock Lode. Additionally, aspen forests across the western United States are declining in huge numbers due to climate change, disease, and the encroachment of invasive plants.

In 2001, the USDA began reporting on “Sudden Aspen Decline” (SAD), the widespread and long-term reduction of aspen forests across the American West (https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/35850). Evidence indicates that climate-related drought conditions play a primary inciting role in this role, and that diseases and insects are killing drought-stressed trees.

My frenzied search for the fast-fading carvings seemed so time-dependent — though I am aware that this is my mind’s own distortion of the passage of time. After all, most of these trees will outlive me, as they have outlived the working men who left their names in their skin. I am left only with a few cryptic words emailed to me by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, the author of Speaking Through the Aspens, a deeply poetic analysis of thousands of arborglyphs throughout Nevada and California:

“You cannot fight nature. You cannot preserve them. The value is in documenting them. This is not to discourage you.”

I am reminded of all the decaying desert towns I have passed through in my search for trees, of the “SAD” and vanishing aspen forests, and of the objects in Marie-Louise’s suitcases.

Reporting by Shelby Herbert for the Reynolds Sandbox

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