Mike Lucey - Passport in Time

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“Mike Lucey: My Favorite Herder”: Arborglyph Recording Project

Fremont National Forest, Oregon, 1997
by Carol Pedersen, PIT Volunteer

In 1997, I participated in my first PIT Arborglyph Recording Project in the Fremont NF near Lakeview, Oregon. Arborglyphs are tree carvings made on aspen trees by the Irish and Basque sheepherders in southeastern Oregon from the late 1800s to the late 1960s.

Our leader, archaeologist John Kaiser, took us to several areas of the forest where we found many names and dates, as well as drawings and even entire poems on the tree trunks. The herders cut the tree lightly, using pocket knives or nails, to create the desired design. After about a year, the tree “cured,” and their carvings became visible. Recording is important, because aspens live only about 80 years, then fall to the forest floor and decay.

Often we would see the same names over and over, such as Jery Supple, Mike Sullivan, Jim Fitzgerald, and Benny Daly. Sometimes they left messages for each other, such as “Never will I camp here again,” or “Guess how long I’ve been here,” or “For the Last Time Farewell.” But my favorite sheepherder was Mike Lucey, who referred to himself in an arborglyph as “The Crazy Herder.” I kept searching for more of his good-humored expressions and found “Mike Lucey, the Montana Swinger,” and the comment, “I’m fed up herding those sheep, there [sic] not satisfied anywhere, they have me tormented and have driven us both crazy.” I wondered what his life must have been like and where he is now.

John told me he heard that Mike lived in California now. During a trip to California last September, I got his address and decided to contact him to see if he would be interested in talking to me about his sheepherding days. When I got there I found his number in the phone book, called, and was invited to his house the next day. We talked for more than three hours. I was so excited to meet him and hear firsthand, in his delightful Irish accent, the stories and poetry that described his experiences as a herder. He was equally happy to see the photos I brought him of his carvings, which he had not seen in 40 years, and to realize that people were interested in recording his artistry.

Talking with Mike Lucey brought the project full circle for me. Two years ago I didn’t know about sheepherding or what an arborglyph was, and now I have a new friend who actually made them and contributed so much to this unique part of Oregon cultural history. And I must go back for another PIT project because there are more trees to record, like the ones Mike said he did and we didn’t find, such as “The Sagebrush Kid” and “The Lone Wolf is on His Last Prowl.”

by Mike Lucey, Sheepherder

In January 1949 I first saw the Oregon plains
After nine long days on board a ship and five more by train
When I arrived in Klamath Falls
The ground was white with snow
And to my sad misfortune it was 24 below
The next stop was the old Log Cabin in the little town of Bly
And there I see the toughest men I did ever spy
There were sheep herders and loggers and some scrawny looking men
And I said to myself, “what am I doing here, far away from my kith and kin”?
I then got into Lakeview and sheep herding I did go
They took me out into the desert
To a place I did not know
They put me with a band of sheep and said you’re on your own
And many a time I cursed the day that I left my native home
Well, for eight long years I stayed out there through weather wet and dry
To ward off the hungry coyotes I slept beneath the sky
In my blanket wrapped by a campfire lone
With my saddle under my head
In a land where men had their backs to God
Where prayers weren’t known or said
I never knew what comfort was
The grub was awful tight
So it was spuds and cabbage I had morning, noon, and night
The butter, eggs, and bacon indeed were awful slim
So when I came in from sheep camp I was both weak and thin
Then to all those sheep men ranchers I said a fond adieu
And headed down to ’Frisco for some other work to do
I knocked around from job to job until I settled down
And I never more will roam the plains outside of Lakeview town.
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