I love aspen trees.
Growing up in Seattle, in western Washington state, I was always surrounded by trees. There were the abundant evergreens – tall pines, cedars and firs. And the larches at higher elevations, that unusual pine whose needles turn yellow before dropping each autumn, adding flashes of bright color among its evergreen neighbors.
Add to the mix the deciduous trees that bring so much fresh green to a landscape in spring as well as fiery colors in autumn: alder, birch, cottonwood, big leaf and vine maples. The big leaf maples were my favorite, with their distinctive broad leaves and two-winged seed pods that spin like helicopters when they fall to the ground. When I was a child there was a big leaf maple in our front yard. It made a perfect climbing tree, and we enjoyed jumping from its branches into piles of its raked leaves as a fall ritual. I can still smell those leaves.
I have always felt most at home in an environment full of trees. I need to see trees. It’s why, back in 2005, I set new roots here in Idaho’s mountains, next to a national forest. It’s why I can’t ever imagine living in a desert environment.
Washington state has sporadic stands of aspen trees, but only in the eastern side of the state. If I saw them while living there, I don’t remember. I remember once being in awe of the color of aspens in fall when visiting Boulder, Colorado in October.
So I was delighted to find small aspen groves scattered here and there among the evergreens in the forest after moving to Idaho. I love their gray-white bark, smooth except for random dark spots, fissures resulting from the tree’s growth and age. The spots often have the shape of an eye, making me think the aspen are watching me and my dogs as we run by.
I love the light crackling sound of aspen leaves tickled by the wind, which gives them the name “quaking” aspen. In fall, the leaves turn bright yellow (with a hint of orange) before dropping to the ground, where they become tiny bowls holding iridescent raindrops reflecting the early morning sunlight.
One day soon after moving to Idaho, exploring the forest, I spotted some older aspens alongside a dirt road. Their trunks were thick and straight and so white, a vivid contrast to the darker browns and greens of the Ponderosa pines and firs surrounding them. As I got closer, I noticed names and initials carved in the bark of a few of the aspen. Usually two names or sets of initials with a + sign between them, maybe a year as well. American names.
I asked my now-eighty-year-old neighbor, a man who has lived his entire life here, if that grove of aspens was a favorite place for the local high school kids to proclaim their love. He nodded, then admitted that he and his wife carved their initials into an aspen not far from that grove, way back when.
Carving names and initials into trees is a common practice among lovers. The carvings can last for decades, a symbol of the permanence of the couple’s love. This practice goes at least as far back as the poet Virgil who published his Eclogues (also known as the Bucolics) in 37 BCE: “Resolved am I in the woods, rather, with wild beasts to couch, and bear my doom, and character my love upon the tender tree-trunks: they will grow, and you, my love, grow with them.” Tree carving was also practiced in Renaissance England, mentioned by William Shakespeare in As You Like It, (1599) and John Evelyn, British landscape architect and author, in Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees, (1662).
Apparently there’s something irresistible about it.
Arborglyphs are carvings made in the bark of aspen trees by lonely shepherds, many of them Basque, throughout the western United States. These are distinct from the names and initials carved into aspen by love-struck teens.
The Basque are considered Europe’s oldest indigenous group. Their language and culture is more ancient than any other in Europe. In 1849, Basques joined the throngs of other young men from around the world seeking their fortune in America. Most were employed in the sheep business. By the early 1900s, “Basque” and “sheepherder” became synonymous.
Most of the arborglyphs are names and dates, and many are in the Basque language, Euskara. There are also picture carvings, offering insights into the lives and thoughts of young Basque men as they roamed with their sheep in the mountains during summer, a unique part of the history of the American West.
Today it’s rare to find an arborglyph with a date from the 1800s. At best, aspen trees live for around 150 years, so many of the earliest arborglyphs were carved on trees that have since died. Various groups are documenting examples or arborglyphs before they disappear due to tree age, vandalism, or wildfire.
I’m no expert, so I can’t be sure these aspen carvings I observed earlier this month are Basque arboglyphs.
But I think they are.
Why? Well, when I first moved here in 2005, several sheep bands were grazing on these national forest lands each summer with their Basque herders. At least one of those bands moved through this particular area. I know, because when running trails with my dogs I’d sometimes hear the bleating of the flock – they’re loud in an otherwise quiet forest – and maybe see them through the trees in a distant meadow. My dogs, Alaskan Malamutes Maia and Meadow, and I would immediately turn back to avoid them. At that time, the Basque herders typically rode a horse, had a few pack horses to carry their food and gear, and a couple of herding dogs (Border Collies, usually) to help them move the flock. They carried rifles to protect their flocks from predators. I didn’t want my dogs to be tempted to chase the sheep, giving the herder an excuse to shoot them. (Around 2010, a friend’s northern-breed dog was shot and killed by a shepherd when he ran into a group of sheep grazing in the forest. My concern was real.)
Typically, a flock would slowly move cross-country during the day, grazing as they went, then hunker down for the night, repeating this routine all summer, always on the move. It was impossible to know exactly where they were at any given time. The Payette National Forest is big and at that time, no one was keeping close track of the bands over the course of the summer.
Once wolves re-established themselves in Idaho, however, the herders began adding guardian dogs to their entourage, dogs that might mistake my Malamutes for a wolf and attack them. I became even more concerned about encountering a flock in the forest, especially after seeing evidence of them where they weren’t supposed to be grazing. I began asking the Forest Service employee in charge of monitoring the sheep grazing allotments to let me know their general route so I could stay clear. Over time, the Forest Service started requiring the herders to carry SPOT devices; they were to send their location to the Forest Service once per day. However, the Forest Service refused to share that precise information with me. Eventually, after several bad, scary encounters between hikers and mountain bikers (with or without dogs) and aggressive sheep guardian dogs, the Forest Service did start providing me with maps showing the approved routes of the various sheep bands over the course of the summer. I’ve also heard that the herders are now using a less-aggressive breed of guardian dog, so that’s an improvement.
Nonetheless, I do NOT want to have an encounter with sheep, or more particularly their guardian dogs, when my dogs are running in the forest with me. Every July when the sheep come onto the forest through October when they come off, I have to plan carefully where the boys and I can safely run.
But back to the local arborglyphs.
There’s a beautiful meadow on a nearby mountain that’s been one of my favorite places to run since I first came here. One passes an older aspen grove at the western entrance to the meadow. I ran there frequently with Maia and Meadow, and it’s where I built one of their cairns and left some of their ashes in the summer of 2013. Now Finn, Conall and I are regular visitors. I almost always take photos of the boys are they head past the aspen trunks because it’s so pretty there, especially when the morning sun is just breaking over a ridge to the east, shining through the tall pines and firs.
Earlier this month, as the boys as I ran through this spot, I thought I’d try to capture how the aspens appear to have eyes watching us. When I stepped off the trail to get a closer look at those “eyes” for photos, I noticed a word carved in one of the trees: Nino, with a tilde over the second n.
Aha! Now we’re on to something.
The carvings were hard to decipher, growth and time having distorted them. But these were different that those names and initials I’d earlier seen on aspen in a different portion of the forest.
I’m certain this area used to be part of an historic sheep allotment route. Sheep were still moving through here when I first started running this trail in 2006, requiring I quickly learn about sheep grazing on public lands. Sometime around 2013, when mountain biking on these trails became more popular, the Forest Service required the herders to avoid this area.
It’s not a leap to imagine herders bedding their flocks down for a night in this meadow over several past decades, carving the nearby aspens to memorialize their presence while also passing the time.
I’ve not seen such carvings on aspens elsewhere on this mountain. And this spot is so remote, far from any road and a few miles up a challenging trail, that I’m certain local hormonal teens didn’t come here to declare their undying love.
I’m no fan of sheep grazing on public land. But I can appreciate the Basque tradition of arborglyphs on aspen trees. It’s fascinating to touch the carvings, living testaments to a herder’s presence in that space long ago, imagining their lonesome lifestyle as I move my palms over the tree’s trunk, the carvings a sort of Braille I can almost interpret. My introverted self thinks that life sounds ideal in many ways.
Learning about the history or arborglyphs adds to the aspen’s unique beauty and allure. No wonder I always felt their eyes were watching me when I ran past them. Oh, the stories they could tell.
Basques in Idaho: A Brief History
Having inhabited the area surrounding the Bay of Biscay in southwestern France and northern Spain for up to 7,000 years, the Basques are a genetic and cultural anomaly in Europe. Speaking a language unrelated to any other known tongue on earth – Euskara – and bearing certain distinctive genetic traits that have been traced back to pre-agricultural Iberia, the Basque have been a source of confusion for European anthropologists and linguists. Thousands of Basques emigrated to Latin America during the 18th and 19th centuries, and in most of these countries assimilated into the culture, losing their ancestral tongue.
Many came to the United States in the 19th century in search of opportunity—often in the form of gold or jobs—ending up in Southeastern Oregon, central Idaho, and Nevada. Some started ranches, while others hired on as sheep herders. Today, many small towns throughout the western United States host annual Basque culture festivals. The largest and best known in is Boise, Idaho. It’s estimated that Idaho’s Basque community has 10,000 to 15,000 members, some descended from those early immigrants but most arriving more recently.
Boise is home to the Basque Center. They host the San Inazio Festival, an annual event to honor St. Ignatius of Loyola, the patron saint of the Basques, showcasing traditional Basque dancing, music, athletes and food.
Every five years, the Basque Center also hosts Jaialdi, an event held on the final weekend of the San Inazio Festival. Jaialdi is a traditional celebration of Basque culture, also featuring music, dance, food, drink, and games from the old country. It’s said that Boise police (many of whom claim Basque ancestry) rarely interfere with the celebrations, allowing the bacchanalia to move throughout downtown Boise, a nod to the village-wide drinking festivals of the Basques’ ancestral homeland.
Feature photo: a grove of young aspen in their fall glory, September 29, 2016.