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Arborglyphs and Tree Carvings

Art and History on Culturally Modified Trees


Basque Arborglyph

Aspen Arborglyph

USFS Photo
A culturally modified tree (CMT) is an archeologist’s term for a tree or a remnant of a tree with evidence of traditional aboriginal forest use or, in special cases, non-native use. These man-modified trees can include stripped bark, stumps, felled logs and trees chopped for pitch, planks and firewood. The most interesting of all CMTs is an arborglyph.

The Arborglyph
Arborglyphs are carvings on trees that record names, dates, images, even poetry and prose. Beech, birch and aspen have traditionally been the trees of choice, preferred by most “artists”. These species’ smooth bark and light color makes a ready-made canvas for carving. Some consider arborglyphs to be a legitimate form of artistic expression and honor trees with these carvings. Others think it is just so much graphitti and another form of tree defacement. Most forest owners do not encourage the practice of carving on their trees.

Whether you agree or disagree that an arborglyph is a tree trashing or a treasure trove, there is a budding science devoted to the study of the oldest of these tree carvings. Historians now study tree carvings to gain better historical, cultural, and ethnic insight into North America’s past. Nearly every early culture, starting with the American Indian, has produced arborglyphs and many if not most have disappeared.

The arborglyph is a botanical relic that has a limited life span. Beech trees can live for several hundred years while birch and aspen rarely survive for more than one hundred years or so. It is a race against time to find and document carvings on tree trunks that are living, just recently dead or preserved. One man named Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe is leading the arborglyph search.

The Basque Aspen Carvings
Basque immigrants from the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain came to the United States between 1860 and 1930. They left thousands of aspen trees carved with names, dates, poetry, and pictures marking their sheepherder duties that supplied mutton to the early Western mining camps. They, more than any other ethnic group, are being studied using arborglyphs carved over the last century.

Dr. Joxe Mallea, Basque History Instructor at University of Nevada, Reno, is the leading source of Internet information on arborglyphs, and more specifically, the Basque connection. Tree carvings have never been studied in such detail as the “glyphs” being documented by Dr. Mallea (over 20,000 arborglyphs to date).

“It can be said that the Basque sheepherders contributed more to the practice of tree carving than any other group in the western United States. Indians, trappers, early explorers, scouts, and prospectors spent considerable time alone in the wilderness but did not record their names and movements on trees or rocks like the Basques did” says Dr. Mallea. Mallea is fast becoming a one-man campaign to expose tree carvings to the popular media.

More Arborglyph Sources:
There just isn't a lot of Internet information on Arborglyphs outside Joxe Mellea's studies. Still, his research is very interesting and the sites on his work worth a visit.
Carving Out History: The Basque Aspens (PDF)

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