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Lonesome Basque Sheppard Tree Carvings

Stay Wild

100 Year Old Dirty Tree Carvings

by Brett Stern

Medicine Bow National Forest, near Cheyenne Wyoming

I was walking through the dense tree pack, looking down and being careful not to trip over a fallen tree or rock, when I noticed bird droppings in front of me. I stopped to look up. About 50 feet above me in an old spruce was a large nest, almost three feet in diameter. A golden eagle was peering down in silence, watching as I moved through its domain. I continued on, but not before the bird let loose with a warning cry announcing my presence for the whole forest to hear.

I was traveling from the metropolis of Manhattan to the back roads of Wyoming, where I was participating in a volunteer project for the U.S. Forest Service’s Passport in Time program. My journey had started when I flew into Cheyenne a day early to see my first real rodeo at Frontier Days. I rented an SUV, loaded up provisions for ten days in the woods, and drove to Medicine Bow National Forest. This was a place where Native American tribes once fashioned hunting bows from mountain mahogany trees. It was also a place for friendly tribes to gather, perform ceremonies, and cure diseases—hence the term “making medicine.”

The federal government eventually forced these tribes north, taking over their lands for animal grazing, mineral exploration, and population expansion. In the 1870s, the Union Pacific Railroad ventured out past Cheyenne, Laramie, Centennial, and Encampment, which opened the doors to huge tracts of land. Because of the terrain, which varied from valley pastures to mountainous topography, it became a natural locale for cattle and sheep grazing. It was perfect for the growing wool industry, and immigrants from Western Europe—specifically shepherds from the Basque region—adapted well to the land and climate as sheepherders. They spent long periods of time alone with their flock, looking for ways to pass the time. They left graffiti in the woods by carving into aspen trees, which have distinctively smooth, thin-skinned white bark that, when carved, leaves a black line or scar over time. These graffiti images ranged from a shepherd’s name, date, and place of birth to amusing pictures, mostly of women in suggestive poses.

Aspen trees typically grow in large clonal colony. They spread by root suckers and continue to expand in growth. An aspen tree can live more than 125 years. Our job as Passport in Time volunteers was to seek out sheepherders’ tree carvings that were made between 1890-1920. So we needed to trek deep into the forest to find old-growth Aspens. Our team of eight volunteers, plus two forest rangers, was to hike through the woods to search for and document these old trees for the first time. It was like a scavenger hunt for shepherd carvings. Once located, we would photograph, sketch, take measurements, and secure a location point with a GPS. Shepherd carvings had been going on for more than 100 years, so some of the aspens were reaching the end of their lives. Combined with drought and forest fires, this folk art was in danger of falling down, and even worse—going up in flames.

Check out passportintime.com. The trips are free and involve work, but are lots of fun.