New world, new canvas

Ex-priest reconstructs a working-class history from Basque arborglyphs

  • Basque historian Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe takes a breather while scouting for arborglyphs in an aspen grove high above Lake Tahoe.

    Jane Braxton Little
  • Arborglyph carved in an aspen below nearby Genoa Peak.

    Phillip Earl, from the collection of Earl Enterprises Reno, NV.
  • Arborglyph carved in an aspen below nearby Genoa Peak.

    Charles R. Drewes, Images courtesy of The Basque Library, University of Nevada, Reno
  • Arborglyph carved in an aspen below nearby Genoa Peak.

    Charles R. Drewes, Images courtesy of The Basque Library, University of Nevada, Reno
 

Oldest recorded Basque arborglyph 1870
Estimated number of carvings on the Tahoe National Forest 30,000
Basque regions represented in carvings on Peavine Mountain, Nevada 4
Number of camcorders Mallea-Olaetxe has worn out 6
Number of books Mallea-Olaetxe has written 5 – "or is it 6?"

Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe is on his hands and knees examining the trunk of a fallen aspen tree.  Between peeling slabs of white bark the size of headstones, he points out a section carved with mysterious shapes and barely legible words. "This could be 'Urepeleko.' This guy must have written the place he is coming from -- Urepele, in southwestern France," he concludes, his grin deepening the laugh lines that frame his piercing blue eyes.

Mallea-Olaetxe (his full name is pronounced HO-shey ma-YEA-a o-la-ET-che) studies history in trees. Still ruggedly handsome at 70, with a rakish black beret and auburn goatee, he is on a mission to record the engravings left by Basque sheepherders in aspen groves throughout the mountains of the American West. Over more than a century, starting in the mid-1800s, thousands of Basque men left their villages in the Pyrenees Mountains of northern Spain and southern France, immigrating to America in search of better lives. Some were driven by raw adventure; others were the younger sons of large families who had no hope of inheriting the ancestral farm. In the mid-1900s,  still others came to escape the harsh rule of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Many of the newcomers ended up working for large companies, tending flocks of sheep. For months on end, they lived in remote aspen groves near the meadows where their charges fattened up -- future high-protein fare for miners and loggers. Alone and far from their families, homesick herders carved their names, thoughts and fantasies on the trees. Some images are elaborate, evoking the deep yearnings of lonesome men in a strange new land. Some are crudely pornographic.

The carvings in this copse of aspens, high above the east shore of Lake Tahoe, are part of an array that stretches from Yosemite National Park north to Plumas National Forest in the Sierra Nevada. The sweet scent of late summer grasses wafts through the grove as Mallea-Olaetxe rises to his feet, a Clark's nutcracker yakking at him from a towering pine. He moves to a standing tree with deeply etched outlines of a couple. The woman wears boots and an old-country dress, the man a beret and fancy belt. They are shaking hands: A wedding, perhaps, Mallea-Olaetxe says. Nearby, on another tree, a donkey nurses a gigantic snake while a foal looks on. "Where this comes from I do not know," he says, flashing a bemused smile that charms as it apologizes.

What Mallea-Olaetxe does know, after recording more than 27,000 carvings over two decades, is that these are not just random scratches by men with time on their hands. Arborglyphs, as they're called, chronicle a unique and little-known Western way of life. It's a working-class history, "saturated with humanity," written by the people themselves without revision by rulers or powerful employers. "This is not history by some academic in an ivory tower," he says, with a wink at the irony that he, a recently retired college instructor of Basque history and language, is assembling it. "It's as democratic and down-to-earth as history can get."