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"Nay, I will try these verses, which lately I carved on the green bark of a beech-tree..."
Mopsus  (Virgil, c. 50 B.C.)

I've always just called them tree carvings but technically they're arborglyphs, or sylvaglyphs, "culturally-modified trees" or just tree graffiti.  But by whatever name they're personal histories--carved into the bark of a tree.   Smooth barked varieties--beech, birch, aspen--are generally preferred and these unique documents--manuscripts in their own right for is not paper itself made from trees?--have begun to capture the attention of scholars. 

Professor Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, a specialist in Basque History at the University of Nevada, Reno, documented over 20,000 arborglyphs in the mountains of the western United States, carved by Basque sheepherders who left their own Pyrenees Mountains behind to supply mutton to isolated mining camps.  They summered their flocks in the lush meadows of the high Sierra above Lake Tahoe, and left a record of their solitary sojourns including names, dates and images of what they were thinking about:  towns back home, bears and buffalo, but often naked women; some carvings are not for the easily offended.

Arborglyphs by Etienne Maizcorene

Some like Etienne Maizcorena left a naively artistic, stylistically recognizable body of work.  Etienne even created his own forest gallery:  
"Aware of the merit of his art, Maizcorena chose a site for his "gallery" near a kanpo handia in Humboldt County, where all his arborglyphs "hang" some eight or nine feet above the ground. Obviously, he did not want anyone touching, overcarving, or disturbing them ... Maizcorena either stood on his horse, or he used a ladder.
— Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe in Speaking Through the Aspens, p.147
There is historical as well as artistic merit in the arborglyphs.  Angie KenCairn, a heritage specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, studies aspen art in the Routt National Forest of Colorado, gleaning information about historic construction projects and stock drives, especially since the herders' usually dated their work.  "Much of the oldest art has actually been discovered on standing dead or fallen trees, and the forest service is striving to document these carvings before they disappear. “They’re a cultural resource,” Angie emphasizes. “Defacing them in any way is a federal offense. Anyway, people should be respectful of those who came before them and respect their legacy.”

Sego Canyon arborglyph [source]

Arborglyphs are inherently ephemeral; most of those currently being recorded date no earlier than the 1920s, when shepherding in the west peaked.   Earlier "cultural modifications" to the treescape have been felled or lost to the vagaries of fire and drought that afflict any forest, even one with artistic interventions.

In a time when contrived urban interventions like sticking legos on a building are a Very Big Deal, I'm moved by the unaffected authenticity of these rural interventions.

Sources and additional reading:

The best source of information on the Basque sheepherder arborglyphs is a multimedia site by the University of Nevada, Reno Library.  The Maizcorena images are from this site. 
Dr. Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe published a book "Speaking Through Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada", in 2000.  He notes that arborglyphs contain the most comprehensive record of sheepherders compiled anywhere in the American west. yet "Until recently, federal archaeologists and historians made almost no attempt to record the arborglyphs, despite the ephemeral nature of aspens.  Their failure was the result of a number of factors, not excluding prejudice against minorities and their cultures and the wholesale dismissal of the arborglyphs as pornography or simple doodling.  The inevitable results was that a great portion of this massive data bank was lost."
The quotes from Angie KenCain are from an article about Colorado arborglyphs: "Aspen Diaries" by Kelly Bastone, published in Steamboat magazine. 
A PhD student at my alma mater, the University of Bristol, did her thesis on a comparative study of arborglyphs left by WWII soldiers on the peaceful Salisbury plain with those left on the front lines in France. A story about her work in the alumni newsletter inspired this post.  
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Plinius said...

Nice post. For those not wanting to scar a tree, there are tree plaques: at Little Sparta Ian Hamilton Finlay has three. As it says on the website:


The tender practice of lovers carving their names on trees has a long literary history, celebrated here. By inscribing the names of famous lovers in literature on finely made ceramic plaques, the practice is elevated to monumental status.

Rosalind and Orlando are the lovers in Shakespeare's As You Like It ; the love story of the nymph Oenone and the Trojan prince Paris is told in Ovid's Heroides; the princess Angelica was the beloved of Orlando, hero of Ariosto's romantic epic poem Orlando Furioso. She rejected him and ran off with a humble soldier, Medoro, hiding in the woods together. When Orlando found their names cut into the trees he was driven mad.

arcady said...

A beautiful follow-up...thanks Pliny!

Kathleen Maunder said...

So interesting. I had never heard of an arborglyph before although I knew of people carving their initials in trees. I love your posts. I always learn something.

Katya said...

There is a book on the subject from the 1970s by Rensselaer W. Lee called Names on Trees, Ariosto into Art. And quite a few 18th and 19th century paintings depicting the scene Plinius describes - including one by Tiepolo at the Villa Valmarana ai Nani near Vicenza

Arbor Man said...

Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe:

"Among the earliest scientific research on aspen carvings was that conducted in Utah by Jan Harold Brunvand and John C. Abramson."

Being the latter person named, I must admit to being somewhat amazed at what has occurred in the 47 years since I wrote a paper for a Folklore class and Brunvand put it in a more scholarly form and it was published 2 years later.

The term "arborglyph" had not been coined at that time, because no one had done any real work on the subject. It has a kind of scientific lilt to it, but I must admit that I find the term CMT (Culturally Modified Trees) to be simply ludicrous.

My collection of photos has never been published in its entirety, but as soon as I am done reviewing them, they will be made available on a new website.

If you have contacts in the filed, feel free to pass this along. I wouldn't mind hearing from a few people.


(John C. Abramson)

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