Men without women

  • SHEEPHERDER'S LAMENT: "Today my fiancee got married, and she will enjoy the night more than I."

    J. Mallea-Olaetxe
  • Flying bird

  • Woman

  "How sad life is, but the saddest thing is to sleep alone even though one has a wife, Luis."
- A tree carving, translated from Spanish in Speaking Through the Aspens

You're walking through an aspen forest and suddenly you see it on a tree trunk - a carving of a woman's body or a bird, and you know: A shepherd stood there, accompanied only by his dogs and a flock of sheep.

Thanks to J. Mallea-Olaetxe, an instructor in Basque history at the University of Nevada, Reno, we learn more about what he calls "arborglyphs" in his new book, Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada.Basque sheepherders were isolated men: "This is so remote. What if something happens to you?" the author said to one. "Remote, you say?" the sheepherder replied. "God has yet to arrive here." They pined for female companionship; they pictured faces or sexual organs. Other images, much like cave paintings, celebrate wild animals. Occasionally, just a man's name seems to say: I was here.

Mallea-Olaetxe tells us he has studied 20,000 images lonely sheepherders carved on tree trunks, some more than a century old. Once dismissed as mere "doodles" or graffiti, he says, the carvings and poignant messages in Spanish and Basque deserve to be recognized as living history. Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada by J. Mallea-Olaetxe, illustrated with photos, 256 pages, cloth, $39.95, University of Nevada Press, Mail Stop 166, Reno, NV 89557-0076 (775/784-6573).