Many years ago I chanced upon The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. It is a brief story, written in 1954 as a piece about an unforgettable character.
The story begins around 1913 when the author is taking a long trip on foot through the valleys of the Provence. He comes upon a valley that is barren and devoid of trees, villages, crops. The wind blows across the barren plain. The spring is dry. The few remaining homes are in disrepair. The author meets there a farmer by the name of Elzeard Bouffier who is watching over his sheep. Bouffier lives in a neat, well ordered cottage and offers the author a bed for the night.
The next morning Bouffier is up early with a sack of acorns and an iron rod a yard and a half long, pointed at one end. He makes a hole in the earth, puts the acorn in, and covers the hole. He tells the author that for three years, he has been planting acorns in the wilderness. Though Bouffier was 55 years old, he had planted one hundred thousand trees. Of those, twenty thousand had sprouted. Of those, he expected to lose half, but that ten thousand would grow where there had been none before. Bouffier goes on to explain that his wife and son had died, and that he had withdrawn into this solitude. He felt that the land was dying for want of trees.
The author goes into the French Army for five years and survives the War of 1914. When the war is over, he decides to return to the valley. The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old. The author spends the day walking through Bouffier’s forest in silence. “When you remembered that all this sprang from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understood that men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.”
But Bouffier was not finished. Though now 60 years old, he had been planting birch seedlings which had begun to sprout in 1910. There were now clumps of birch trees as well. Because of the trees, the water reappeared in the springs. The wind scattered the seeds. Then willows, rushes, and meadows appeared here and there. But the transformation was so gradual that no one noticed. Hunters in the forest who now hunted game assumed the forest just reappeared of its own accord.
In 1935 a whole delegation came from the Government to proclaim the “natural forest” that had grown up around the town. The whole forest was put under the protection of the State and the trees were forbidden to be cut down. During these years, Elzeard Bouffier continued his plantings of seedlings and acorns, day after day. He became so solitary he lost the use of speech altogether. Yet he is happy in his simple life.
The author goes back in 1945 and is amazed to see now a whole town has grown where there used to be but a few hovels. There is a fountain in the center of the town, and a linden tree, planted as a symbol of hope. There are fields of barley and rye. The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again. On each farm are maples and tall grasses. More than ten thousand people live in comfort, owing their happiness to Elzeard Bouffier.
Giono closes, “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.”
Giono, J. 1985. The Man Who Planted Trees. Chelsea, Vt.: Chelsea Green Pubs.