Across the West, Basque immigrants worked as sheepherders from 1800s to the 1960s. During the summer months, sheepherders would trail with their sheep up into the mountain ranges, where fresh water streams and lush pastures were abundant. They sought out the aspen groves, because they knew they would find grassy meadows nearby. Many carved their names and etched drawings on the soft white bark of aspen trees.
These Basque tree carvings are a memorial to the legacy of those men who endured a solitary lifestyle, roaming the mountains and grassy meadows with their flocks. But the carvings are threatened. Aspen trees are dying by the tens of thousands, crowded out by large pines and devastated by parasitical insects. As the trees die, so too does an important part of the history of Basque sheepherding in the United States.
For more than two decades, Basque tree carvings have been researched by University of Nevada at Reno Professor Joxe Mallea. For a detailed account of sheepherders and the carvings they left behind, see Mallea’s book, “Speaking Through the Aspens.”
Click on the map below for directions to a grove of tree carvings in the Sierras north of Truckee: