Researchers Document and Preserve Basque Sheepherders’ Carvings on Aspen Trees in the American West

A collaborative research effort known as Lertxun-Marrak, consisting of Boise State University, California State University, Bakersfield, and the University of Nevada, Reno, along with the support of various museums, aims to document and preserve the carvings made by Basque sheepherders on aspen trees in the American West. These carvings, known as arborglyphs or “lertxun-marrak” in Basque, tell the stories and experiences of the sheepherders who immigrated from the Basque Country to the American West starting from the 1840s.

The arborglyphs, which number around 25,000 documented carvings, depict various themes such as signatures, hometowns, politics, and personal desires. The carvings reflect the emotions and experiences of the herders, with nostalgia playing a significant role. The Basque immigrants practiced transhumance, a seasonal form of herding, which involved trailing the sheep to the high mountains during spring and summer and returning to the valleys for winter.

The arborglyphs are at risk of disappearing due to factors such as age, grazing practices, fires, and climate change. The Arborglyph Collaborative aims to document as many carvings as possible before they are lost. Researchers follow the herders’ trails through the mountains, identifying mature aspen groves with springs close by as potential locations for the carvings. Various techniques, including rubbings, sketching, photography, video recordings, and photogrammetry, are used to document and recreate the carvings in virtual reality.

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