Idaho Arborglyphs and the race to document them

Arborglyphs and the race to document them
Published: Oct. 10, 2023 at 1:28 PM MDT
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TWIN FALLS, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) —From the Magic Valley to the Wood River Valley to the Treasure Valley, if you’ve been recreating in the great outdoors, you’ve probably seen carvings in trees also known as arborglyphs. While humans have been drawing, carving, and etching into all kinds of materials for a very long time, these arborglyphs are something a little bit different because they tell the story of an anonymous group in Idaho history, the Basque sheepherders.

“They’re up in the mountains for large periods of time… I could tell my students they didn’t leave selfies; they didn’t leave video diaries” Boise State History Professor Dr. John Bieter said while explaining why it’s hard to tell the story of the Basque Sheepherders.

The multi-group effort consists of several universities and government agencies including Boise State University, The College of Southern Idaho, The College of Western Idaho, The Bureau of Land Management, The University of Nevada-Reno, and the United States Forest Service among others.

“The Boise National Forest has been involved with this since the early 2000s.” Joe Bergstrom, Acting Heritage Program Manager at the Boise Nation Forest said.

The effort from all these organizations is needed as well as these groups are in a race against time to document as many of the arborglyphs as they can.

“If they last 100 to 120 years, that’s a good long run for them. We also know that with climate change, we’re having increasing fires and larger and hotter fires that are spreading even faster,” Dr. Bieter said.

That is far from the only problem as well as they have had problems with people going into these areas and vandalizing the trees or taking the arborglyph right out of the tree.

“They’re even cutting trees down and just taking a whole piece of the stump just so that they can have those cells, which of course is not okay for archeology,” Archeologist Maddie Phillips said when speaking about what vandalism can look like. The goal is to document them for the future, but through the use of 3D rendering technology to be able to take students to the Aspen groves to walk amongst the trees.

“We’re taking 60 to 90 photographs of each tree all around the tree and then bring them into a program that is making a 3D rendering of that. That 3D rendering is great because you can turn the tree and be able to see all the way around it. So, a 360 model, but also you can use the filters to be able to read some of the stuff you can’t read with the naked eye,” local historian Justin Vipperman said while explaining how they document the trees.

This isn’t just an exercise in Archeology as for some students they can learn about history they might be directly connected to.

“I take groups of students to the hills and then we camp and do research, and one of those was a student named ‘Maya’. Her father was a Basque sheepherder. He died when she was at a young age, and she didn’t get to know him very well. I’ll never forget it because we were doing different work and came back together, and I see that tears had rolled down her cheeks and I asked her what had happened and she said that she had found one of his carvings, and it was, yeah, just one of those great, deeply personal moments for somebody who gets to stumble upon something that her father created,” Dr. Bieter said when explaining why the arborglyphs are important to document and what students can get out of the experience.

The Historians also say this is a great way for the community to get involved and are directly asking for your help.

“We love it when the hunters and those that are out fishing or hikers.” Dr. Bieter said when asked who can get involved.

You can identify a traditional Basque arborglyph in a few different ways. The first is through the language that is used.

“If a phrase is in Basque, you know, it’s a Basque, that’s pretty easy. But for herders, at least most of the time, they put their name and date, and if that date is from the seventies, for example, you could be pretty sure it was a herder and not someone out hunting or something,” Mrs. Phillips explained.

However, some of them are a little more abstract.

“You might get these phrases of resistance to their home country, not to, but in support of their home country,” Mr. Vipperman explained. To send information or to help out you can contact John Bieter or Justin Vipper at their emails. However, Dr. Bieter wants to remind you that you shouldn’t touch or take the cells from the trees.

“What I really say is just please honor them, honor the work that they’ve done. Think about the family that would like to see that and see it within its context and just let it go through its lifecycle…” Dr. Bieter concluded.