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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • FRESHWATER SCIENTIST
    The Freshwater Scientist provides technical and scientific support and leadership as a subject matter resource (SMR) for conservation initiatives in surface and groundwater hydrology including...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.