Written in the Trees: The Roots of Arborglyphs

In a Scandinavian forest a carving of symbols on a pine tree translates to ‘Bad, 1905, we have lost three cows!’. On the other side of the world in North America a tree carved by a shepherd reads ‘Es trieste a vivir solo’ (It is sad to live alone), and in urban parks world-over, bark can be spotted etched with a cacophony of lover’s initials and outpourings.

Words and symbols carved onto a living tree are sometimes described as ‘arborglyphs’ (derived from arbor ‘tree’; glyphein ‘to carve’), but some people think of it vandalism or ‘tree graffiti’. Whatever the name, tree writing is driven by multifarious social and cultural factors; love, solitude, rivalry, identity, artistry, boredom, or downright bragging.

Since earliest times, trees  symbolically anchored in the earth and stretched towards the cosmos  have been inherently connected with human identity.”

Trees create a fixed bond between people and places in the landscape. With the evolution of writing humans have instinctively left their mark by transcribing inner thoughts and emotions onto various substrates, with tree-trunks providing a universal ‘blank canvas’.

Arborglyphs are present across many cultures. In Australia the Gamilaroi and Wiradjuri peoples carved ceremonial trees to connect with ancestors. The Scorpion Tree of the Chumash people is thought to be an astrological tool whilst the Moriori people on Chatham Islands carved symbols of the natural world and faces of their ancestors into kopi trees.

As agriculture developed over time carved trees become landscape noticeboards, trail-markers or shelter. For global romantics, the gesture of carving a lover’s initials into a tree appeared as far back as Ovid’s Heroides:

‘The beech trees guard my name, cut there by you;
and I read ‘Oenone’, written there by your knife.

And as the trunk grows, my name grows the same;
grow, and rise straight, in honour of my name!’

It was also mentioned in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’; the love-frenzied Orlando declares he will carve every tree in the Forest of Arden:

O Rosalind! these trees shall be my books,
And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character,
That every eye which in this forest looks
Shall see thy virtue witness’d everywhere.
Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree,
The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she.’

Etching a loved one’s name into bark is seen to symbolise permanent love. Unlike ‘petraglyphs’ (rock carvings) however, bark carvings endure for the lifespan of the tree, and are disappearing more rapidly due to deforestation and climate change.

Basque shepherd aborglyphs of human figures. Jon Bilbao Basque Library, University of Nevada, Reno
Basque shepherd carving of a human figure. Jon Bilbao Basque Library, University of Nevada, Reno

To combat the fleeting nature of arborglyphs, an effort has been made in more recent times to record some of the tree messages. At the research forefront is Professor Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, who has studied thousands of arborglyphs over the last thirty years. His book ‘Speaking through the Aspens’ documents carvings by Basque shepherds in Nevada and California in the United States. Basques, hailing from the Pyrenees Mountains nestled between France and Spain, were lured to the region during the 1850’s Californian gold rush, and continued migrating in waves for the next hundred years. With little mining experience most of the men turned to shepherding which led to lonely, isolated summers in forested high country. As Mallea-Olaetxe states, ‘alone in the immensity of their new foreign territory, carving on trees began for the shepherds as an instinctual response to their environment’. In short, these chaps were far from home with ample time on their hands, stuff on their minds, and a sharp knife in their pocket. The surrounding quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) provided shelter for their flock, and seclusion to inscribe into the smooth, pale, bark in their free time. An incision with knife or fingernail would harden into a dark ‘scar’ like a ‘tree tattoo’.

Like Orlando, the trees became their books, or perhaps botanical diaries, not only for themselves but other members of the shepherding community should they wander by or return over the years.”

They typically carved their name and date, symbols, or snippets of daily commentary and political opinions, written in a mix of Basque, Spanish or English. The shepherd’s vented frustrations were occasionally peppered with expletives, or a dose of frank humour, most likely about the weather, the ‘damn sheep’, or the bosses. One reads: ‘It would be better if the sheep bosses paid once a week’, and another: ‘Yeah, woman and wine are both good, but they are hard on your pocketbook!’. Often they replied to each other or sorted out small quarrels by adding or editing each other’s messages over time (one simply says ‘Sorry’ below a peace sign).  For these ‘lonely sentinels of the West’ far away from the outside world and their companions, the forest became an intimate space to carve erotic images of women, usually naked and in suggestive poses.

Today arborglyphs whisper through the trees and give rise to the idea that people and nature are not exclusive.”

We are hardwired to connect and create a sense of belonging in an ‘I was here’, ‘Cogito, ergo sum’, type of way. Deliberate carvings offer up glimpses into memories, existence, or refuge and provide insight into how humans have shaped the landscape over time. It is a gentle reminder to open your eyes when you next stroll through your local park or forest, seek out these messages imprinted in the bark, and wonder, perhaps, does Gaz still love Shaz from 1986?

Nota bene: As romantic as it seems, carving an arborglyph can badly damage the tree and make it vulnerable to disease. So stick to texting and emojis, you love-struck folks!

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A naked woman carved into an aspen by a Basque shepherd. Idaho Basque Arborglyphs Collection, Boise State University.