Aspen carving: Folk art form or natural desecration?

30 Jun

The following originally appeared in the June 26, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Arborglyphs, or tree carvings, can be found in many of Tooele County’s aspen trees. American Indians and many subsequent cultures to arrive in the Rocky Mountain region have used the aspen’s smooth surface as their canvas. (photo by Echo Thomsen)

Arborglyphs, or tree carvings, can be found in many of Tooele County’s aspen trees. American Indians and many subsequent cultures to arrive in the Rocky Mountain region have used the aspen’s smooth surface as their canvas. (photo by Echo Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

I’ve always wondered what happened to Red H.  I don’t know who he is, but I know he frequented the Manti la Sal National Forest during the sixties and that he loved to carve his signature into the pale bark of aspen trees there.  I know because I’ve passed by, taken shade under, and camped near scores of aspens bearing his scarred autograph.

As a kid, I always pictured him as a lonely, somewhat narcissistic outdoorsman from one of the small towns nearby.  Perhaps he had red hair (hence the moniker).  And maybe he wore a red flannel woodsman shirt that smelled of salmon eggs and DEET.  One thing’s for sure; the man had some serious time on his hands, and was fairly skilled with a knife.

A recent trip to an aspen forest in Ophir Canyon spurred a brainstorm about tree carvings, or arborglyphs.  Almost every aspen trunk along the small trail bore at least one set of initials.  My sense of discovery wasn’t hampered in any way, but the wealth of time-warped scribbling begged some questions.  Was I looking at art or graffiti– valuable cultural resources or blatant defacement of natural resources?  The answer, I suppose, lies both in purpose and perspective.

First let’s consider the aspen tree.  If I’ve learned anything in my years of practically umbilical connection to the Internet, it’s that no matter what topic interests you, there’s at least one person in cyberspace equally—if not more—interested in it than you are.  And fortunately that person runs a website dedicated to it.

On the topic of aspens, some deep Googling led me to the Watching the World Wake Up blog authored by Alex Obbard.  Obbard makes his living as a technology sales executive, but dabbles quite passionately in botany and the natural sciences.  The self-described “motivated perpetual amateur” writes studiously about Utah’s flora and fauna.  His particular fondness for aspens was apparent.

The rustling sounds of nearly round aspen leaves, he writes, sound “almost like a chorus of soft whispers in a gentle breeze…as though someone is telling you something you can’t quite catch, but maybe could, if you stopped and somehow listened more closely.”

Aspen forests are unlike any other forests in North America,” Obbard explained in an email to me.  “The white trunks and wide spacing create an open, airy canopy, that invites you to stroll, explore and linger more so than coniferous or Eastern hardwood forests.”

Aspens in the Intermountain West are thought to grow as shoots from interconnected root systems rather than by seed reproduction.  According to the Utah State University Forestry Extension, aspen forests in our mountains consist of vast, genetically identical clones that have regenerated for centuries.

Thus, while it may spread across many acres, a stand of aspen clones is classified as a single living organism, based on its common root system.  A single male stand in Fish Lake National Forest dubbed “Pando” consists of 47,000 trees and is considered the largest, heaviest, and oldest organism on Earth.

In the Intermountain West, the distinctive white-trunked forests thrive on south-facing slopes above 7,000 feet.  Individual trees can live up to 100 years, give or take.  Modern arborglyphs can be found in most conveniently accessible aspen forests– especially near streams, trails, and meadows.

If you’re lucky, you might spot a near-ancient carving among the droves of modern initials.  Most every culture since the American Indian has used the aspen’s smooth bark as a natural canvas.  Explorers and prospectors used them as trail markers.  Trapper journals suggest that mountain men may well have started the initial-plus-date trend that continues to the present as a way to say “I was here.”

Archaeologists consider near-ancient arborglyphs to be valuable cultural resources.  Especially prized are those carved by immigrants from the Basque regions of France and Spain during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Most became sheepherders and spent many lonely years in the forests of the American West.  Their carvings are renowned for their delicate artistry.  Often depicted were elements of sheepherding life and nude women.

Basque arborglyphs are well documented in the mountains above Park City, and Dr. Joxe Mallea- Olaetxe, an arboglyph expert at the University of Nevada, Reno, is pretty sure more exist in our own Deep Creek Mountains.  He said he hasn’t been there to investigate yet, but he’d love to see them recorded there.

I saw nothing older than 1980 during my hike in Ophir Canyon, but in 2001 Alex Obbard found a carving there with a 1928 date.  “The digits were clear and legible, though stretched by growth,” he said. “The date surprised me.”

More recent carvings spark the art versus graffiti debate and the bring up the question of perspective.  What one may consider a meaningful memento, another sees as defilement of nature.

“It’s destruction of a natural resource,” Carol Majeske, Recreation Manager for the Salt Lake Ranger District, told me, adding that carving in national forests is prohibited.  Aside from the argument that modern carvings detract from a forest’s beauty, she pointed out that breaching a tree’s bark makes it susceptible to insects and disease.

Early arborglyph carvers may have known this.  Their carvings were superficial, penetrating only the outermost layers of bark.  Modern initial carvers tend to cut much too deep.

“We’re living in different times with many communication methods at our disposal,” Majeske reasoned. “We don’t need to carve messages on rocks or trees.”

She’s got a point.  Circumstances of human presence in these forests are much different now.  A trapper or sheepherder’s sojourns there were long, lonely, and often arduous.  My visits are spur of the moment and purely recreational. Much has changed since olden day wanderers chiseled their fantasies in aspen bark.  Future archaeologists certainly won’t need to rely on tree carvings to study our culture.

Still, there’s something about even semi-old arborglyphs that, as Alex Obbard put it, “adds a dimension of human history to the forest.”  If ol’ Red H. is still around, he might agree.


Special thanks to Alex Obbard for his eloquent insight.  His blog, Watching the World Wake Up, is now on the blogroll.  It’s a must-read for anybody curious about the natural sciences.  Good stuff.


One response to “Aspen carving: Folk art form or natural desecration?

  1. Albert A Rasch

    July 2, 2009 at 5:38 am

    Interesting topic, I never thought to think about it!

    Now I am going to give it thought!

    Real Men Hunt


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