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Birds and Basques in the Mono Basin

August 3rd, 2015 by Mono Lake Committee Staff
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This post was written by Sandra Noll, Birding Intern in 2014, 2015, & 2016.

An elegant 60-year-old arborglyph, likely Basque in origin. Photo by Sandra Noll.

An elegant 60-year-old arborglyph, likely Basque in origin. Photo by Sandra Noll.

Birding is often about much more than birds, a truth evidenced by the breadth of offerings at the annual Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua. Recently I arranged a birding excursion with friends to one of the Mono Basin’s many canyons, where I was equally enchanted by Red-breasted Sapsuckers flying in and out of tree-cavity nests with morsels for hungry chicks and by historic Basque, Mexican, and South American carvings on the aspen trees.

A Red-breasted Sapsucker checks its nest cavity before flying off to forage in response to its chick’s incessant demands for food. Photo by Sandra Noll.

A Red-breasted Sapsucker checks its nest cavity before flying off to forage in response to its chick’s incessant demands for food. Photo by Sandra Noll.

Aspen tree carvings (arborglyphs) were created by sheepherders—initially Basques from the Pyrenees Mountains straddling today’s France and Spain, and later by shepherds from Mexico and South America—during their lonely summer vigils tending large flocks in remote high country pastures. Campsites were often established in cool aspen forests near a creek; habitats similar to Bohler Canyon. It’s quite an experience to be birding and suddenly come face to face with historic documents growing on trees!

The aspen’s thin, soft white bark is easily scratched or carved. After the herders made their thin cuts, which were hardly visible, the rest was up to the trees. The outline of a carving only begins to show after few years when the tree scars over. If the carver had a steady hand and light touch his work left a circumscribed dark scar against a white background. If the incision was too deep, the scar would be thick and the letters or lines of drawings merged together, becoming difficult to interpret. If done well and the chosen aspen achieved its average life span of 100 years, the shepherd’s message could remain clear for a century.

Original carvings date from the 1850s when sheep became an important source of protein for early mining camps, to the 1970s when the heyday of the sheep industry faded. John Muir, a former sheepherder, likely came across these carvings himself. It was quite moving to join him in bearing witness to that history.

If you want to learn more about arborglyphs, Basque history in the Eastern Sierra, and aspen natural history, the Mono Lake Committee offers a field seminar on the subject every other year. The next arborglyph seminar will be offered in the fall of 2016.

Reference: Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada by J. Mallea-Olaetxe (Available at the Mono Lake Committee Information Center & Bookstore.)

The author deciphering an arborglyph. Photo courtesy of Lee Whitmer.

The author deciphering an arborglyph. Photo courtesy of Lee Whitmer.

A deeply cut/scarred Peruvian arborglyph, date unclear. Photo by Sandra Noll.

A deeply cut/scarred Peruvian arborglyph, date unclear. Photo by Sandra Noll.

Am arborglyph with both writing and drawing. The faces are reminiscent of comedy/tragedy masks and may reflect the artist's reflections on his isolated work. Photo by Sandra Noll.

An arborglyph with both writing and drawing. The faces are reminiscent of comedy/tragedy masks and may reflect the artist’s reflections on his isolated work. Photo by Sandra Noll.

An extensive 43-year-old Spanish-language arborglyph wishing peace for all countries of the world. Photo by Sandra Noll.

An extensive 43-year-old Spanish-language arborglyph wishing peace for all countries of the world. Photo by Sandra Noll.


One Response to “Birds and Basques in the Mono Basin”

  1. avatar Marsh Pitman Says:

    I first saw 1800s Basque carvings on pines east of Tioga Pass in 1950, thanks to Carl Sharsmith. Most have been lost due to tree death & decay since then; but some were still visible in 2004. I enjoyed seeing pictures of these new carvings.