Basque sheep herders were well-known for carving their names and images (women mostly) into aspen trees on their lonely summer stays in the mountains. I didn’t know much about them growing up, but working at the Center For Basque Studies I’ve learned a lot more about them and gotten pretty interested in them (although somewhat hypocrtitically it bugs me when I see modern carvings). There definitely is an artistry to a lot of the Basque carvings and they bring a completely different era to light.
This past weekend Renee, Coco and I had a chance to hike into the eastern side of the brand new Pine Forest Wilderness, up Chicken Creek and over into the highest reaches of Leonard Creek. At Leonard Creek’s mouth on the valley floor is the ranch that has been in my family since around 1918 (and my grandfather homesteaded on the creek even earlier), hence the southeastern slope of Pine Forest being my “backyard” and the route we followed a fairly common route for buckarooing in the fall, trail rides, and hiking trips.
So you can imagine how surprised I was, when we got into the high meadows on an early spring before the trees have budded, to notice that many of the aspens had been carved. The earliest for-sure date we saw was 1916, but one that was very hard to read may have been from the 1800s. And there were lots of them, many women but other figures too, so old they were really hard to distinguish in many cases.
It was really humbling and illuminating to find these arbor glyphs, powerful testimony of the history of what I’ve always unselfconsciously considered to be “my” mountain. To think about those shepherds working for and or knowing well my grandpa and my dad. And from the numbers and long range dates (from what I think is the late 1800s to the 1940s), just how much the mountain has been used and to imagine what kind of community there must have been up there when there might have been several different bands of neighboring sheep.
A powerful reminder that everywhere holds surprises and that I always have very much to learn.