Call her the Venus de Milo of the Sierra. Like the Greek statue, she has no arms—just a curvaceous nude torso that wouldn’t seem out of place in a museum’s hushed galleries. But here, among the fluttering aspen leaves of California’s Modoc National Forest, the subject’s bare breasts on the silky smooth skin of the tree are both work of art and a celebration of raw sexuality.
A Basque sheepherder, too long without a woman, carved this Venus 80 years ago. Wherever sheep grazed, art appears among the trees. Some subjects perform sexual favors; others wear silk stockings and pearls. Many lack arms or heads, which interested these men less than breasts and hips. But none of it is porn, insists Basque scholar and retired University of Nevada professor Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe.
“Pornography is something that you sell,” says Mallea-Olaetxe, who’s been documenting aspen carvings (called arborglyphs) since 1988. These sexy cartoons weren’t currency. They’re records of the innermost longings of a lonely, largely illiterate population.
After the West was settled and the gold rushes had died down, sheepherding attracted poor migrant workers who signed on for a season or two, hoping to earn enough cash to start a family back home. Skilled in the care of sheep and accustomed to mountainous terrain, Basques worked the California and Nevada high country starting in the late 1800s. Mexicans were more prevalent in Colorado. “And the migrants still come,” notes Angie Krall, Heritage Program Manager for the Rio Grande National Forest, who says that today it’s more often Peruvians that roam the subalpine herding sheep from horseback.
The work can seem like exile. For weeks, solitary herders follow flocks through the mountains with only a dog for company. Some felt forgotten, surmises Mallea-Olaetxe, who says that sheepherders more frequently would only carve their name, hometown, and the day’s date. It was as if they were affirming their existence.
Other carvings record the details of herding life, like an enormous mosquito or the location of a spring (herders often left messages for those that followed). Some vent frustrations that no one was around to hear. “You could not pay me a million dollars to come back here,” one reads.
It’s titillating stuff for hikers and backcountry skiers, but it’s more than just graphic art. Because most of the carvings are signed and dated, researchers use them to document historic construction projects, stock driveways, and the migrants themselves who often left no other evidence of their life in the U.S. As you might expect, though, the record is disappearing. Aspens only live 80 to 120 years. Today, the oldest carvings are found on standing dead or fallen trees. Mallea-Olaetxe and other historians are hurrying to document arborglyphs before the bark fades back into the earth.
“Sheepherding is an ancient occupation, dating back to biblical times, but no other herder group has done this,” says Mallea-Olaetxe. “It’s unique to the American West. Carving trees was therapeutic to them. If they were having a hard time, they could carve expletives or women on trees. And they immediately felt better.”