The Legend of “The Man Who Planted Trees.”

The Man Who Planted Trees

by Jean Giono

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French author Jean Giono (l895-1970) wrote this tale in 1953. It has been
translated into many languages and is well-known worldwide.

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For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have
the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years. If
this performance is devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is
unparalleled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no
thought of recompense and that, in addition, it has left its visible mark
upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.

About forty years ago I was taking a long trip on foot over mountain heights
quite unknown to tourists, in that ancient region where the Alps thrust down
into Provence. All this. at the time I embarked upon my long walk through
these deserted regions, was barren and colorless land. Nothing grew there
but wild lavender.

I was crossing the area at its widest point, and after three days’ walking,
found myself in the midst of unparalleled desolation. I camped near the
vestiges of an abandoned village. I had run out of water the day before, and
had to find some. These clustered houses, although in ruins, like an old
wasps’ nest, suggested that there must once have been a spring or well here.
There was indeed a spring, but it was dry. The five or six houses, roofless,
gnawed by wind and rain, the tiny chapel with its crumbling steeple, stood
about like the houses and chapels in living villages, but all life had
vanished.

It was a fine June day, brilliant with sunlight, but over this unsheltered
land high in the sky, the wind blew with unendurable ferocity. It growled
over the carcasses of the houses like a lion disturbed at its meal. I had to
move my camp.

After five hours’ walking I had still not found water and there was nothing
to give me any hope of finding any. All about me was the same dryness, the
same coarse grasses. I thought I glimpsed in the distance a small black
silhouette, upright, and took it for the trunk of a solitary tree. In any
case I started toward it. It was a shepherd. Thirty sheep were lying about
him on the baking earth.

He gave me a drink from his water gourd and, a little later, took me to his
cottage in a fold of the plain. He drew his water–excellent water–from a
very deep natural well above which he had constructed a primitive winch. The
man spoke little. This is the way of those who live alone, but one felt that
he was sure of himself, and confident in his assurance. That was unexpected
in this barren country. He lived, not in a cabin, but in a real house built
of stone that bore plain evidence of how his own efforts had reclaimed the
ruin he had found there on his arrival. His roof was strong and sound. The
wind on its tiles made the sound of the sea upon its shore.

The place was in order, the dishes washed, the floor swept, his rifle oiled;
his soup was boiling over the fire. I noticed then that he was cleanly
shaved, that all his buttons were firmly sewed on, that his clothing had
been mended with the meticulous care that makes the mending invisible. He
shared his soup with me and afterwards, when I offered my tobacco pouch, he
told me that he did not smoke. His dog, as silent as himself, was friendly
without being servile.

It was understood from the first that I should spend the night there; the
nearest village was still more than a day and a half away. And besides I was
perfectly familiar with the nature of the rare villages in that region.

There were four or five of them scattered well apart from each other on
these mountain slopes, among white oak thickets, at the extreme end of the
wagon roads. They were inhabited by charcoal-burners, and the living was
bad. Families, crowded together in a climate that is excessively harsh both
in winter and in summer, found no escape from the unceasing conflict of
personalities. Irrational ambition reached inordinate proportions in the
continual desire for escape. The men took their wagonloads of charcoal to
the town, then returned. The soundest characters broke under the perpetual
grind. The women nursed their grievances. There was rivalry in everything,
over the price of charcoal as over a pew in the church, over warring virtues
as over warring vices as well as over the ceaseless combat between virtues
and vice. And over all there was the wind, also ceaseless, to rasp upon the
nerves. There were epidemics of suicide and frequent cases of insanity,
usually homicidal.

The shepherd went to fetch a small sack and poured out a heap of acorns on
the table. He began to inspect them, one by one, with great concentration,
separating the good from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I did offer to help him.
He told me that it was his job. And in fact, seeing the care he devoted to
the task, I did not insist. That was the whole of our conversation. When he
had set aside a large enough pile of good acorns he counted them out by
tens, meanwhile eliminating the small ones or those which were slightly
cracked, for now he examined them more closely. When he had thus selected
one hundred perfect acorns he stopped and we went to bed.

There was peace in being with this man. The next day I asked if I might rest
here for a day. He found it quite natural–or, to be more exact, he gave me
the impression that nothing could startle him. My rest was not absolutely
necessary, but I was interested and wished to know more about him. He opened
the pen and led his flock to pasture. Before leaving, he plunged his sack of
carefully selected and counted acorns into a pail of water.

I noticed that he carried for a stick an iron rod as thick as my thumb and
about a yard and a half long. Resting myself by walking, I followed a path
parallel to his. His pasture was in a valley. He left the dog in charge of
the little flock and climbed toward where I stood. I was afraid that he was
about to rebuke me for my indiscretion, but it was not that at all: this was
the way he was going, and he invited me to go along if I had nothing better
to do. He climbed to the top of the ridge, about a hundred yards away.

There he began thrusting his iron rod into the earth, making a hole in which
he planted an acorn; then he refilled the hole. He was planting oak trees. I
asked him if the land belonged to him. He answered no. Did he know whose it
was? He did not. He supposed it was community property, or perhaps belonged
to people who cared nothing about it. He was not interested in finding out
whose it was. He planted his hundred acorns with the greatest care.

After the midday meal he resumed his planting. I suppose I must have been
fairly insistent in my questioning, for he answered me. For three years he
had been planting trees in this wilderness. He had planted one hundred
thousand. Of the hundred thousand, twenty thousand had sprouted. Of the
twenty thousand he still expected to lose about half, to rodents or to the
unpredictable designs of Providence. There remained ten thousand oak trees
to grow where nothing had grown before.

That was when I began to wonder about the age of this man. He was obviously
over fifty. Fifty-five, he told me. His name was Elzeard Bouffier. He had
once had a farm in the lowlands. There he had had his life. He had lost his
only son, then his wife. He had withdrawn into this solitude where his
pleasure was to live leisurely with his lambs and his dog. It was his
opinion that this land was dying for want of trees. He added that, having no
very pressing business of his own, he had resolved to remedy this state of
affairs.

Since I was at that time, in spite of my youth, leading a solitary life, I
understood how to deal gently with solitary spirits. But my very youth
forced me to consider the future in relation to myself and to a certain
quest for happiness. I told him that in thirty years his ten thousand oaks
would be magnificent. He answered quite simply that if God granted him life,
in thirty years he would have planted so many more that these ten thousand
would be like a drop of water in the ocean.

Besides, he was now studying the reproduction of beech trees and had a
nursery of seedlings grown from beechnuts near his cottage. The seedlings,
which he had protected from his sheep with a wire fence, were very
beautiful. He was also considering birches for the valleys where, he told
me, there was a certain amount of moisture a few yards below the surface of
the soil.

The next day. we parted.

The following year came the War of 1914, in which I was involved for the
next five years. An infantryman hardly had time for reflecting upon trees.
To tell the truth, the thing itself had made no impression upon me; I had
considered it as a hobby, a stamp collection, and forgotten it.

The war over, I found myself possessed of a tiny demobilization bonus and a
huge desire to breathe fresh air for a while. It was with no other objective
that I again took the road to the barren lands.

The countryside had not changed. However, beyond the deserted village I
glimpsed in the distance a sort of greyish mist that covered the
mountaintops like a carpet. Since the day before, I had begun to think again
of the shepherd tree-planter. “Ten thousand oaks,” I reflected, “really take
up quite a bit of space.

I had seen too many men die during those five years not to imagine easily
that Elzeard Bouffier was dead, especially since, at twenty, one regards men
of fifty as old men with nothing left to do but die. He was not dead. As a
matter of fact, he was extremely spry.

He had changed jobs. Now he had only four sheep but, instead, a hundred
beehives. He had got rid of the sheep because they threatened his young
trees. For, he told me (and I saw for myself), the war had disturbed him not
at all. He had imperturbably continued to plant.

The oaks of 1910 were then ten years old and taller than either of us. It
was an impressive spectacle. I was literally speechless and, as he did not
talk, we spent the whole day walking in silence through his forest. In three
sections, it measured eleven kilometers in length and three kilometers at
its greatest width. When you remembered that all this had sprung from the
hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you
understood that humans could be as effectual as God in other realms than
that of destruction.

He had pursued his plan, and beech trees as high as my shoulder, spreading
out as far as the eye could reach, confirmed it. He showed me handsome
clumps of birch planted five years before–that is, in 1915, when I had been
fighting at Verdun. He had set them out in all the valleys where he had
guessed–and rightly–that there was moisture almost at the surface of the
ground. They were as delicate as young girls, and very well established.

Creation seemed to come about in a sort of chain reaction. He did not worry
about it, he was determinedly pursuing his task in all its simplicity; but
as we went back toward the village I saw water flowing in brooks that had
been dry since human memory. This was the most impressive result of the
chain reaction that I had seen. These dry streams had once, long ago, run
with water. Some of the dreary villages I mentioned before had been built on
the sites of ancient Roman settlements, traces of which still remained; and
archaeologists, exploring there, had found fishhooks where, in the twentieth
century, cisterns were needed to assure a small supply of water.

The wind, too, scattered seeds. As the water reappeared, so there reappeared
willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, flowers, and a certain purpose in being
alive. But the transformation took place so gradually that it became part of
the pattern without causing any astonishment. Hunters, climbing into the
wilderness in pursuit of hares or wild boar, had of course noticed the
sudden growth of little trees, but had attributed it to some natural caprice
of the earth. That is why no one meddled with Elzeard Bouffier’s work. If he
had been detected he would have had opposition. He was indetectable. Who in
the villages or in the administration could have dreamed of such
perseverance in a magnificent generosity?

To have anything like a precise idea of this exceptional character one must
not forget that he worked in total solitude: so total that, toward the end
of his life, he lost the habit of speech. Or perhaps it was that he saw no
need for it.

In 1933 he received a visit from a forest ranger who notified him of an
order against lighting fires out of doors for fear of endangering the growth
of this natural forest. It was the first time the man told him naively, that
he had ever heard of a forest growing of its own accord. At that time
Bouffier was about to plant beeches at a spot some twelve kilometers from
his cottage. In order to avoid traveling back and forth–for he was then
seventy-five–he planned to build a stone cabin right at the plantation. The
next year he did so.

In 1935 a whole delegation came from the Government to examine the “natural
forest.” There was a high official from the Forest Service, a deputy,
technicians. There was a great deal of ineffectual talk. It was decided that
something must be done and, fortunately, nothing was done except the only
helpful thing: the whole forest was placed under the protection of the State
and charcoal burning prohibited. For it was impossible not to be captivated
by the beauty of those young trees in the fullness of health, and they cast
their spell over the deputy himself.

A friend of mine was among the forestry officers of the delegation. To him I
explained the mystery. One day the following week we went together to see
Elzeard Bouffier. We found him hard at work, some ten kilometers from the
spot where the inspection had taken place.

This forester was not my friend for nothing. He was aware of values. He knew
how to keep silent. I delivered the eggs I had brought as a present. We
shared our lunch among the three of us and spent several hours in wordless
contemplation of the countryside.

In the direction from which we had come the slopes were covered with trees
twenty to twenty-five feet tall. I remembered how the land had looked in
1913: a desert…. Peaceful, regular toil, the vigorous mountain air,
frugality and, above all, serenity of spirit had endowed this old man with
awe-inspiring health. He was one of God’s athletes. I wondered how many more
acres he was going to cover with trees.

Before leaving, my friend simply made a brief suggestion about certain
species of trees that the soil here seemed particularly suited for. He did
not force the point. “For the very good reason,” he told me later, “that
Bouffier knows more about it than I do. ” At the end of an hour’s
walking–having turned it over in his mind–he added, “He knows a lot more
about it than anybody. He’s discovered a wonderful way to be happy! ”

It was thanks to this officer that not only the forest but also the
happiness of the man was protected. He delegated three rangers to the task,
and so terrorized them that they remained proof against all the bottles of
wine the charcoal-burners could offer.

The only serious danger to the work occurred during the war of 1939. As cars
were being run on gazogenes (wood-burning generators), there was never
enough wood. Cutting was started among the oaks of 1910, but the area was so
far from any railroads that the enterprise turned out to be financially
unsound. It was abandoned. The shepherd had seen nothing of it. He was
thirty kilometers away, peacefully continuing his work, ignoring the war of
’39 as he had ignored that of ’14.

I saw Elzeard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945. He was then
eighty-seven. I had started back along the route through the wastelands; but
now, in spite of the disorder in which the war had left the country, there
was a bus running between the Durance Valley and the mountain. I attributed
the fact that I no longer recognized the scenes of my earlier journeys to
this relatively speedy transportation. It seemed to me, too, that the route
took me through new territory. It took the name of a village to convince me
that I was actually in that region that had been all ruins and desolation.

The bus put me down at Vergons. In 1913 this hamlet of ten or twelve houses
had three inhabitants. They had been savage creatures, hating one another,
living by trapping game, little removed, both physically and morally, from
the conditions of prehistoric humanity. All about them nettles were feeding
upon the remains of abandoned houses. Their condition had been beyond hope.
For them, nothing but to await death–a situation which rarely predisposes
to virtue.

Everything was changed. Even the air. Instead of the harsh dry winds that
used to attack me, a gentle breeze was blowing, laden with scents. A sound
like water came from the mountains: it was the wind in the forest. Most
amazing of all, I heard the actual sound of water falling into a pool. I saw
that a fountain had been built, that it flowed freely and–what touched me
most-that someone had planted a linden beside it, a linden that must have
been four years old, already in full leaf, the incontestable symbol of
resurrection.

Besides, Vergons bore evidence of labor at the sort of undertaking for which
hope is required. Hope, then, had returned. Ruins had been cleared away,
dilapidated walls torn down and five houses restored. Now there were
twenty-eight inhabitants, four of them young married couples. The new
houses, freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens where vegetables and
flowers grew in orderly confusion, cabbages and roses, leeks and
snapdragons, celery and anemones. It was now a village where one would like
to live.

From that point on I went on foot. The war just finished had not yet allowed
the full blooming of life, but Lazarus was out of the tomb. On the lower
slopes of the mountain I saw little fields of barley and rye; deep in the
narrow valleys the meadows were turning green.

It has taken only the eight years since then for the whole countryside to
glow with health and prosperity. On the site of ruins I had seen in 1913 now
stand neat farms, cleanly plastered, testifying to a happy and comfortable
life. The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves,
are flowing again. Their waters have been channeled. On each farm, in groves
of maples, fountain pools overflow onto carpets of fresh mint. Little by
little the villages have been rebuilt. People from the plains, where land is
costly, have settled here, bringing youth, motion, the spirit of adventure.
Along the roads you meet hearty men and women, boys and girls who understand
laughter and have recovered a taste for picnics. Counting the former
population, unrecognizable now that they live in comfort, more than ten
thousand people owe their happiness to Elzeard Bouffier.

When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral
resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the
wasteland, I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is
admirable. But when I compute the unfailing greatness of spirit and the
tenacity of benevolence that it must have taken to achieve this result, I am
taken with an immense respect for that old and unlearned peasant who was
able to complete a work worthy of God.

Elzeard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the hospice in Banon.

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This story is available as a nicely illustrated, clothbound book from
Chelsea Green Publishing Company (1-800-639-4099). Chelsea Green, with
American Forests, also co-sponsors the Jean Giono Award, which is given each
year to an individual who exemplifies the tree-planting example of Giono’s
Elzeard Bouffier.

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About pastorjoehite

Senior Pastor of Valley Fellowship of Yakima
This entry was posted in Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Legend of “The Man Who Planted Trees.”

  1. Jeremy Buegge says:

    It is a powerful idea that we bear God’s image, especially having the power to create and destroy. But we are dwarfed by His immensity and efficiency– God having created a universe in 6 days and Elzeard planting a forest during the better part of a lifetime. But I suppose that is how it is meant to be, we are to continue God’s handiwork, rather than come up with something entirely new. True invention is more God’s realm. After all, Elzeard did not invent the acorn.

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