Aspen carvings a window into Basque history
Traveling hundreds of miles through Nevada’s high desert and Ruby Mountains more than a half century ago, a young immigrant from the Basque region of Spain tended his sheep and rarely ventured into a town.
Now, Abel Mendeguia is working to ensure his and the legacy of other Basque shepherds who literally left their mark in the high country of the Sierra Nevada, Hope Valley and the Ruby Mountains.
Mendeguia eventually bought his own shepherding outfit in the spring of 1966 from a fellow in Russell Valley, just north of Truckee off Highway 89. For the next 25 years, Mendeguia ran his sheep from California’s Central Valley, up and over the Sierra to Virginia City and then back, grazing his animals like the countless other Basque men who dominated the livestock industry in the West from the turn of the century through the 1970s.
Speakers of a language called Euskara, the Basque are from a region of the Pyrenees mountains straddling the border between France and Spain. More than a century ago, Basque men were part of the wave of travelers headed to the Golden and Silver states to stake their claims among the much publicized mines. In so doing, the Basque took root throughout the West, including the Sierra Nevada and the high desert of Northern Nevada.
Mendeguia was a teenager when he came over with 300 other Basque and his three brothers in 1951. He worked as a shepherd, a solitary job not fit for the weak.
“He said at first that he cried a lot,” Mendeguia’s wife, Judy, says of her husband’s early years herding sheep. “But the Basque people are known for their discipline, tolerance and acceptance.”
Carving out history
Herding 5,000 to 10,000 head throughout the year, picking up camp and moving four times a year and living without electricity for nine months at a time, the Mendeguias were part of the last strong contingency of sheepherders in the Sierra until they sold their outfit in 1991.
Abel says he has been back to retrace his trail in the Rubies and found the aspen trees on which he carved his name. Now, the retired Reno couple is working with the U.S. Forest Service to preserve their 125-year-old camp in the Russell Valley with hopes of getting it on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I miss it; all the sheep – I don’t know anything else,” a shy Abel says, then laughs. “The animals, they don’t talk to you back.”
Surrounded by thousands of woolly souls but no one to converse with, Basque shepherds in the Sierra decades ago had a unique method of communication that lingers to this day. Carvings were etched into aspen trees by Basque herders as a way of leaving messages and more for their brethren.
Hikers who’ve trekked up and down the Sierra may have found themselves among groves of enscripted aspens, typically near a water source or open valley. They are the remnants of traveling shepherds who left their stories on the smooth bark. Many of the artifacts remain in the country in and around Hope Valley, south of Lake Tahoe.
Basque author José Mallea-Olaetxe wrote “Speaking Through the Aspens.” He’s spent years documenting the carvings throughout the West.
According to Mallea-Olaetxe, the carvings reflect the shepherds innermost thoughts and their location along herding routes, of which there were many. He says it is difficult for most people to comprehend the importance that sheep had in the developing of the West, where California in the 1800s had 6 million sheep, Nevada had 2 million.
“Idaho, Montana and Wyoming had twice more than Nevada,” Mallea-Olaetxe writes .
“The Aspens stand as witness for these men, for example, they tell us that most sheepherders were Basque, … without tree carvings, the sheep industry would be a huge black hole,” writes Mallea-Olaetxe.
“The Aspen carvings constitute an untapped source to learn about who the real sheepherders were.”
Michael Baldrica, the archeologist for the Tahoe National Forest’s Sierraville Ranger District, says carvings can tell you which side the shepherd or his father was on during the Spanish Civil War, or provide a clear path to follow an individual shepherd’s grazing routes.
“You can follow (the route) carver by carver just about,” Baldrica says. “The trees can tell you where the herder went in a given year.”
A disappearing canvas
Forces of nature, however, threaten to disintegrate the Basque legacy in the Sierra. Despite the efforts of people like the Mendeguias, Baldrica and Truckee Ranger District Archeologist Carrie Smith, the carvings will eventually die off and old sheep camps will crumble into the past.
“The carvings – the aspen groves, they’re dying,” Smith says. “(The aspen) is not a long-living tree, and aspen ecology is a complex thing. They like fire, and with actively suppressing fire aspens die.”
Smith says that the groves where much of the Basque carvings are found are being overgrown by evergreens, and in certain areas beavers are threatening the aspens. A typical aspen lives 60 to 80 years, some occasionally live more than 100 years.
Defacement of the aspens – new carvings over the decades-old carvings – is also destroying the rich grazing history of the high Sierra’s valleys.