Searching for Arborglyphs
by Robert N. Coats
In the Jarbidge Range, my seventeenth year,
I drove up dusty dirt roads,
across clanging cattle guards,
hiked into high meadows and aspen groves.
There I found the spot
where in 1929, Efrain Madariaga
of Iparralde, Spain scribed his name,
and a record of his loneliness and desire:
a Picassoesque image of a woman
drawn with great skill
in explicit and erotic detail.
At every chance now, in the watersheds
of the Humboldt, Carson, Truckee, and Walker
I look in aspen groves for the records
left by Basque sheepherders
who worked alone all summer,
gazed out across the arid valleys,
thinking of family left behind.
Those men, their dogs and longing
are gone now. All that remain
are the silent testimonies of men uprooted
and these will not last.
Still, cobwebs of virga hang
from afternoon thunderclouds.
The up-canyon wind shivers the aspen leaves,
carrying the scent of sagebrush and Wyethia.
Previously published in the Fall 2014 issue of Windfall, and in the author’s collection The Harsh Green World (Sugartown Publishing, 2015).
PHOTO: Arborglyph carved by a Basque sheepherder on an aspen tree. Photo by Kent Vertrees, All Rights Reserved.
NOTE: The Basque are known as Europe’s first family since their language and culture is more ancient than any other on the continent. Basques are indigenous to and primarily inhabit an area traditionally known as the Basque Country, a region located around the western end of the Pyrenees Mountains on the coast of the Bay of Biscay that straddles parts of north-central Spain and southwestern France. Starting with the 1849 Gold Rush, Basques sought their fortune in the American West. After failing to find gold, most of were employed in the sheep business. To express their feelings, Basque sheepherders carved words an images on aspen trees. Today, there are very few aspen carvings dating before 1900, since aspen trees only live about 100 years. Most of the carvings are names and dates, and many are in the Basque language, Euskara. The Basque sheepherders skillfully carved without injury to the living tree.
Excerpt from “Basque Sheepherding in the American West” by William A. Douglass: By the 1940s, the sheep industry was experiencing a severe labor crisis. To remedy this situation, the U.S. Congress passed a series of “Sheepherder Laws” conferring permanent residence on Basques who were herding sheep as illegal aliens. Sheepherders created the Western Range Association to recruit herders (mainly in Spain) for three-year labor contracts in the American West. From 1950 until the mid-1970s the system introduced several thousand Basques workers into the United States. The struggle over access to public lands between ranchers and environmentalists that limited livestock grazing permits, along with the improved economic conditions in Europe’s Basque Country shifted the recruiting efforts toward Latin America (Mexico, Peru and Chile). By the mid-1970s there were fewer than 100 Basque sheepherders in the American West.
PHOTO: Basque sheepherder on horseback with his flock on mountainside with aspen trees, near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Teri Virbickis, used by permission.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: In the first half of the 20th Century, ranchers in the Great Basin recruited men from the Basque villages in Spain and France to work as sheepherders. For information about the tree carvings and the Basque communities in the Intermountain West, see: Speaking Through the Aspens, by J. Mallea-Olaetxe (University of Nevada Press, 2000). The poem is based on my experience in a remote area in northern Elko County, Nevada, where I was fortunate to spend summers during my teenage years.
PHOTO: Basque tree carving of highly stylized numerals on an aspen tree near Bridgeport, California. Photo by the author.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert N. Coats has been writing poetry for more than 40 years. His poems have appeared on the Canary Website, in Orion, Zone 3, Windfall, Song of the San Joaquin, in two anthologies (Fresh Water: Poems from the Rivers, Lakes and Streams and Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California, and in his book The Harsh Green World, published by Sugartown Publishing. He is a Research Associate with the University of California Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center.