Tree carvings reveal lives of Basque gold rush diaspora

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For decades, anthropologists have combed the mountainous landscape of south-west France and the Spanish Pyrenees in an attempt to piece together the history of the Basque diaspora. Now, researchers are completing the puzzle with the help of a treasure trove of arborglyphs; thousands of 19th- and 20th-century tree carvings elaborately etched on to the trunks of aspen trees in the United States.

Some are rallying political cries for Basque solidarity, others depict the sexual fantasies of a lonely farmer, and many are no different from the graffiti found on school desks, simply stating such things as "Joxe was here".

Researchers cataloguing the arborglyphs say the carvings provide a blueprint for Basque immigration patterns and expose the psyche of the solitary sheepherder caught up in the Gold Rush that swept across the western US in the 1850s.

"The trees are a wonderful window into the Basque immigrant's way of life from the turn of the century to today. They provide insight into a group that is largely inaccessible in any other way" John Bieter, executive director of the Cenarrusa Centre for Basque Studies at Boise State University in Idaho, told The Independent.

During the California Gold Rush, thousands of young men from the Basque region followed the gold trail across the US. The rush barely lasted six months. Many foreigners left the country. Others, like the Basques, branched out into shepherding, a largely solitary pursuit.

Etchings then began appearing in the trees of California, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho and other states across the west.

Susie Osgood, a Forest Service archaeologist based in California, said. "[The etchings provide] a realistic window into what you think and do out here when you're all alone. In the 19th century, you were your own entertainment" she said.

As primitive as life as a shepherd was, many of the carvings depict illusions of grandeur. "Some of [the shepherds] appear to have felt they were someone important - lords of immense mountain ranges and plains - since there was no one near to dispute their claim," Jose Mallea says in his book, Carving out History.

Others have all the poignancy of marks etched on to prison walls. One tree carving near Reno in Nevada reads: "If [shepherd] life is what the old-timers told me it was, my balls are carnations."

Another, carved in Euskara, the Basque language, says: "In Spain, they consider us great men, but here we are nothing."

"I've never gone out and not been surprised by the creativity of these carvers. Nature and time and a desire to communicate provided the means for them to transmit their thoughts and feelings," Mr Bieter said.

Hundreds of carvings have been lost to nature, disfigured by the growth of the trees. But in Boise National Forest in Idaho, one lone tree tells a story that, in the wake of the ceasefire declared in March 2006, might be consigned to the history books. "Long live Eta," it says.