A lonely sheepherder mourns a lost love by carving a poem to her in aspen bark. A Cherokee man, forced from his home and leaving on the trail of tears buries his possessions at the foot of a tree, marking the tree so he can find it later. A young couple celebrate their love by carving their initials in a nearby sapling. The scars left in the bark of trees by these activities are called arborglyphs, literally "tree writing", and the study of these markings is revealing much about our history.
Many Cherokee people who were forcibly removed from their homes in the 1830's believed that they would someday return and buried family treasures, planning on digging them up later. Directions to these buried caches were carved on nearby Beech trees and rocks, and coded in such a way that only the carver,his family, or a member of his tribe trained in the meanings could decipher the instructions. The safety of these treasures was such that the penalty for revealing the code to a stranger, especially a white person, was death. The Cherokee people also used carvings to preserve details of the life that was about to be disrupted forever. Family holdings and clan relationships were recorded in these pictographs, as well as creating huge networks of symbols carved on long lived trees and rocks. These symbols could be read only by members of the 300 or so indian families who left them. Forest Wade, a Cherokee descendant who was taught by a family friend to read these inscriptions, documented the carvings in a book he published in 1969 called Cry of the Eagle, History and Legends of the Cherokee Indians and Their Buried Treasures
Another common source of arborglyphs were the young Basque and Irish who immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. Many went to work as sheepherders in remote mountain meadows, and carved poems, names, dates, faces and other images telling of their lonely, isolated lives into the Aspen trees. Some of the most famous Basque arborglyphs are found in Southern Oregon, on Steens Mountain, in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwest Colorado, and in the mountains around Reno, Nevada. Most of these carvings were done on Aspen trees using pocketknives or nails. Recently, these carvings have been recognized as important links to a way of life that existed only for a short time, and are being studied and recorded. Aspen trees have a life span of 80-90 years, however, and many of the earlier arborglyphs have already disappeared. A woman named Carol Pederson has spent a good deal of time tracking down these carvings and photographing them in southern Oregon, mainly on the Fremont National Forest and on Steens Mountain. The University of Nevada, Reno has a center for Basque studies and is researching and compiling information about the carvings in that area. In Colorado volunteers are racing against time to locate and record the carvings along the Pine/Piedra Stock Drive, a 27-mile long livestock trail used by many of the sheepherders. There is even a beautifully illustrated book called Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada by J. Mallea-Olaetxe that has photos of the carvings and stories of some of the men (and women) behind them.