One new photograph, almost every day of the year

2016—The Arboglyphs

Arboglyph?  What is an arboglyph, you ask?  Well, similar to petroglyphs, which are symbols or pictures carved, etched, or painted onto rocks, arboglyphs are words or pictures carved onto a tree trunk. Think carving you initials on a tree.  And, while Petroglyphs are usually prehistoric, the arboglyphs I photographed are much more recent.  Most  were carved in the early and middle decades of the 20th century by sheepherders tending flocks on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  They are carved on aspens that grow in small groves  scattered around the hillsides at elevations over 8000 feet.  But, unlike petroglyphs that have millennia-long life spans, arboglyphs are lost when a tree dies.  Aspen trees have life spans of about 100 years so these arboglyphs aren’t going to be around for more than a few decades more.

I went with my photography buddy Bruce a few weeks ago to see and photograph these quirky trees.  The arboglyphs weren’t quite what I was expecting and they were not easy to photograph because they wrap around the trees, making it impossible for the camera to capture the complete carving.  I tried making panoramas but they just didn’t look right.  Most of the carvings we saw were names and dates, usually years  carved over names representing each season spent tending sheep.  Some of the trees had carvings that were obliterated by another carver…almost like gang graffiti of today.  And some of the carvings were rather primitive people, even a carving of Joe Louis in 1948, one of the years he held the heavyweight crown.  The sheepherders often used existing features of the tree as part of the drawing.  In the case of Joe Louis, a huge dark splotch represents his uplifted boxing glove but it’s not really visible in the photograph because of the shape of the tree.   I was surprised to find quite a few rather pornographic carvings.  I guess the sheepherders were lonely.  But it was difficult to decipher most of those carvings and it was only after pondering about them for a while did it finally dawn on us what we were looking at.    I hope I didn’t inadvertently include one in the slideshow.  At least two of the carvings in the slide show were made over 100 years ago.

And, as a reminder, if you can’t view the slideshow from your e-mail, click on the blog title to go to the website where you should be able to view it.

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2 responses

  1. Bruce

    Nice choices, since our trip to Monitor Pass I’ve located some closer to home above Truckee. Several are illustrated in Mr. J.Mallea-Olaetxe’s book Speaking Through The Aspens. Another chance an adventure.

    August 14, 2016 at 8:39 am

  2. Michael

    Looks like some of those were left by Basque shepherds!

    August 14, 2016 at 11:13 am

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