Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by marks on the landscape left by people who walked this land before us. These marks exist worldwide, on rock faces, hillsides, boulders, and caves. Some are considered the earliest forms of artistic expression and you’ve likely heard of Lascaux Cave in France, or seen aboriginal artwork from Australia depicted in books or magazines, and been amazed.
I remember as a young boy visiting a petroglyph-covered boulder in a park in Northern Ontario in and being captivated by the imaginative figures of people and animals pecked into the hard granite of the Canadian Shield. Most of us seeing them would wonder who drew these figures? What were they trying to say? Why here?
About 10 years ago, my fascination with glyphs drew me to a project sponsored by the US Forest Service called Passport in Time, a citizen archaeology initiative that invites volunteers to work alongside professionals in interesting projects all over the country. My favorite places are in the Eastern Sierras in California from Bridgeport down to Bishop in the Owens Valley.
I’ve been a volunteer on lots of PIT projects, most of them in California and the Great Basin high desert in Nevada. And, I’ve seen my share of fanciful and exotic rock art on high ridges and mesas, and hidden away in sandy canyons. The people who lived in these areas in prehistoric and historic times survived in climatic extremes. But they found time to leave marks on the landscape for their contemporaries, and for us to find and wonder about.
I am excited every time I find a petroglyph or pictograph, and each sighting makes me conjure up an image. Was this mark made to signal a right of passage, a successful hunting trip, or simply a message for others who might come the same way. I’m not sure anybody really knows for sure - maybe only in cases where astronomical events coincided with what is represented by the work on stone, like those at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
There are thousands of examples of the marked landscape that lie hidden in the hills beside interstates or in vacation areas in the mountains or lake country that you likely enjoy, and I encourage you to look for them yourself. Lately, I’ve been looking at curious marks on trees.
A few years ago, while driving down to Bridgeport CA, to participate in a survey of hunting traps and rock art sites on the high ridges along the California/Nevada border, I listened to a fascinating interview on National Public Radio with a historian from the University Nevada, Reno. He was talking about his new book called Speaking through the Aspens. He was a Basque historian, Joxe Mallea.
If you know anything about the Basques, you may know that they have an amazingly long history in North America. Basque noblemen were among the conquistadors who traveled with Cortez to Mexico. And they were among the early explorers who opened up the American West.
More recently Basques settled the western states.
Many were adventurers seeking their fortune in the West during the gold rush. Others worked on ranches and herding sheep in the mountain pastures.
Some came from South America where they had done similar work on the pampas.
Basque herders moved sheep to graze in high pastures in the mountains during warm summer months, and these sheepherders often set up camps among the aspens that are abundant below the mountain ridges. Sheepherding is a lonely and often solitary life, with men spending months away from family and friends.
It became a tradition among these herders to carve inscriptions on the aspens. Typically these inscriptions included the family name of the herder and the date. And the inscriptions varied from the romantic, to the political, to the profane. Worries about sweethearts left behind, tracts against bosses, drawings of well-known working women who traveled to the remote herding camps to help relieve the loneliness of the men living in the hills.
Because aspens stand for about 100 years there has been an effort by historians to catalog and GPS the thousands of tree inscriptions for their historical value in tracing family movements among herder families. I‘ve participated in two of these surveys in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness here in California and the Boise National Forest in Idaho. Interpreting the inscriptions is an art form itself because the images often circle a tree trunk and spread over time, blurring letters and meaning.
If you spot a stand of aspens high in the mountains of the West, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll find arborglyphs on their trunks. While the images may feel like a defacement of the trees, they also provide clues about the life of sheepherders who spent months in mountains in a solitary lifestyle during the early 1900s to the present. When the trees fall at the end of their lives the images disappear as part of the natural cycle.
But, you don’t have to be in the mountains or wilderness areas these days to spot new marks on the landscape left by a more urban tribe in search of its voice. Railroad glyphs are a curious new form of expression.
Rolling across North American are railroad cars covered with wildly painted scenes and graffiti tags of the type often associated with urban environments like subways, alleys and highway overpasses – the stuff of big cities.
They’re a moving art show created by graffiti artists - railroad cars that transport grain and other commodities across North America passing through small towns rarely touched by urban influences or images.
Some railroad car art appears to be well-planned “pieces” that fill the entire side of a grain car. Others may be stencils, or political slogans, or just random tags applied while the rolling stock made a brief stop along its trans-continental route.
The “tag slices” in these frames are sections of colorful graffiti from railroad cars that are always parked along the waterfront near my home in North Vancouver, British Columbia, the western shipping point for grain, ores and chemicals heading to destinations around the world.
Whatever their intent, railroad tags are eye-catching and colorful. Close examination of the images however reveals the skill and graphic eye with which they were applied to the rusting metal of the rolling stock. And, you may only get a fleeting glance at them as you drive along a roadway beside tracks or see railroad cars passing at a crossing.
Throughout our history, for varying reasons, there appears to be an ongoing need for individuals and groups to leave curious marks on the landscape. Some permanent, some temporary, some fleeting – all fascinating. I invite you to look for glyphs and tags in your landscape.