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Lonely Sheepherders Communicate through Tree Carvings

Sheepherders spending lonely summers in Southern Oregon turned to a special medium to express themselves.  They affixed their identity to aspen trees by carving everything from their names and hometowns to their yearnings to get away from the sheep and return to their native lands. 

A researcher of the carvings, or arborglyphs, Carol Pedersen, writes about their historical value in an article titled “Basque and Irish Sheepherder Carvings in Southern Oregon.”  The Irish were mostly near Lakeview in south central Lake County and the Basques in southeastern Harney County.

There are few carved images of sheep.  Pedersen suggests it was pointless for a lonely herder surrounded by as many as 1,500 ewes and lambs to remind himself of sheep.

One carving reads, “I’m fed up of herding those sheep. There (sic) not satisfied anywhere. The devils they have me tormented and driven both crazy an(d) quare.”  The word “quare” is Irish for “daft.”

Pedersen says the herders “left a virtual library on the trees.”  She warns that aspens must be studied and preserved before the trees die.

A Basque herder, Joaquin Ygarzabal, carved a Spanish farewell that translates as, “I think next year I’m not going to be here.”

 

Source: Pedersen, Carol. "Sheep Trails: Sheep Ranching in the Land of the Lakes; Basque and Irish Sheepherder Carvings in Southern Oregon." Journal of the Shaw Historical Library 18 (2004): 25-35. Print.

Kernan Turner is the Southern Oregon Historical Society’s volunteer editor and coordinator of the As It Was series broadcast daily by Jefferson Public Radio. A University of Oregon journalism graduate, Turner was a reporter for the Coos Bay World and managing editor of the Democrat-Herald in Albany before joining the Associated Press in Portland in 1967. Turner spent 35 years with the AP before retiring in Ashland.