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L'homme qui plantait des arbres (The man who planted trees)

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The Man Who Planted Trees a story by Jean Giono Many years ago I went on a long hike through hills absolutely unknown to tourists in that very old region where the Alps penetrate into Provence. At the time I undertook my long walk through this deserted region, it consisted of barren and monotonous lands, at about 1200 to 1300 meters above sea level. Nothing grew there except wild lavender. I was crossing this country at its widest part, and after walking for three days, I found myself in the most complete desolation. I was camped next to the skeleton of an abandoned village. Since yesterday I didn't have any water left and I had to find more. These houses, ruins huddled together and looking like an old wasps' nests, made me think that there must at one time have been a spring or a well there. There was indeed a spring, but it was dry. The five or six roofless houses, ravaged by sun and wind, and the small chapel with its tumble-down belfry, were arrayed like the houses and chapels of living villages, but all life had disappeared. It was a beautiful June day with plenty of sun, but on these shelterless lands, high up in the sky, the wind whistled with an unendurable brutality. Its growling in the carcasses of the houses was like that of a wild beast disturbed during its meal. I had to move my camp. After five hours of walking further, I still hadn't found water, and nothing gave me hope of finding any. Everywhere there was the same dryness, the same stiff, woody plants. I thought I saw in the distance a small black silhouette. I thought it was the trunk of a lonely tree. On a chance I headed towards it. It was a shepherd. Thirty lambs or so were resting near him on the scorching ground. He gave me a drink from his gourd. A little later he led me to his shepherd's cottage, tucked down in an undulation of the plateau. He drew his water - excellent - from a natural hole, very deep, above which he had installed a rudimentary windlass. This man spoke little. This is common among those who live alone, but he seemed sure of himself and confident in this assurance. This was remarkable in this land shorn of everything. He lived not in a cabin but in a real house of stone, from the looks of which it was clear that his own labor had restored the ruins he had found on his arrival. His roof was solid and water-tight. The wind struck against the roof tiles with the sound of the sea crashing on the beach. His household was in order, his floor swept, his rifle greased; his soup boiled over the fire. I noticed then that he was also freshly shaven, that all his buttons were solidly sewn, that his clothes were mended with such care as to make the patches invisible. He shared his soup with me. When afterwards I offered him my tobacco pouch, he told me that he didn't smoke. His dog, as silent as he, was friendly without being fawning. It had been agreed immediately that I would pass the night there; the next village was still more than a day and a half farther on. I understood perfectly well the character of the rare villages of that region. There are 4 or 5 of them dispersed far from one another on the flanks of the hills, in groves of white oaks at the very ends of roads passable by carriage. They are inhabited by woodcutters who make charcoal. They are places where the living is poor. The families, pressed together in close quarters by a climate that is exceedingly harsh, in summer as well as in winter, struggle ever more selfishly against each other. Irrational contention grows beyond all bounds, fueled by a continuous struggle to escape from that place. The men carry their charcoal to the cities, and then return. The most solid qualities crack under this perpetual Scottish shower The women stir up bitterness. There is competition over everything, from the sale of charcoal to the benches at church, The virtues fight amongst themselves, the vices fight amongst themselves, and there is a ceaseless general combat between the vices and the virtues. On top of all that, the equally ceaseless wind irritates the nerves. There are epidemics of suicides and numerous cases of insanity, almost always murderous. The shepherd, who didn't smoke, took out a small bag and poured a pile of acorns out onto the table. He began to examine them one after another attentively, separating the good from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I offered to help him. He told me it was his business. Indeed, seeing the care that he devoted to this job, I did not insist. This was our whole conversation. When the pile of good acorns was big enough, he made packets of ten. Meanwhile he eliminated the smaller ones or slightly cracked ones, examining them very closely. When he had before him one hundred perfect acorns he stopped, and we went to bed. The company of this man brought me a feeling of peace. I asked him the next morning if I might stay and rest the whole day with him. He found that perfectly natural, or more exactly, he gave me the impression that nothing could disturb him. This rest was not absolutely necessary to me, but I was intrigued and I wanted to find out more. He let out his flock and took them to the pasture. Before leaving, he soaked in water the little sack containing the acorns so carefully chosen and counted. I noted that he carried as a sort of walking stick an iron rod as thick as his thumb and about 1.50m long. I set off like someone out for a stroll, following a route parallel to his. His sheep pasture lay at the bottom of a small valley. He left his flock in the charge of his dog and climbed up towards the spot where I was standing. I was afraid that he was coming to reproach me for my indiscretion, but not at all : it was his own route and he invited me to come along with him if I had nothing better to do. He continued on another two hundred meters up the hill. Having arrived at the place he had been heading for, he begin to pound his iron rod into the ground. This made a hole in which he placed an acorn, whereupon he covered the hole again. He was planting oak trees. I asked him if the land belonged to him. He answered no. Did he know whose land it was? He did not know. He supposed that it was communal land, or perhaps it belonged to people who did not care about it? He himself did not care to know who the owners were. In this way he planted his one hundred acorns with great care. After the noon meal, he began once more to pick over his acorns. I must have put enough insistence into my questions, because he answered them. For three years now he had been planting trees in this deserted area. He had planted 100,000. Of these, 20,000 had come up. He counted on losing another half of them to rodents and to everything else that is unpredictable in the designs of Providence. That left ten thousand oaks that would grow in this place where before there was nothing. It was at this moment that I began to wonder about his age. He was clearly more than fifty. Fifty-five, he told me. His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He had owned a farm in the plains. He had lived most of his life there. He had lost his only son, and then his wife. He had retired into this solitude, where he took pleasure in living slowly, with his flock of sheep and his dog. He had concluded that this country was dying for lack of trees. He added that, having nothing more important to do, he had resolved to remedy the situation. My youth forced me to imagine the future in my own terms, including a certain pursuit of happiness. I told him that in 30 years, his 10,000 oak trees would be magnificent to behold. He replied very simply that, if God gave him life, in 30 years he would have planted so many others that these 10,000 would be like a drop of water in the ocean. He was already studying the propagation of beeches. and he had near his house a nursery filled with seedlings. His little wards, that he had protected from his sheep, were growing beautifully. He was also considering birches for the valley bottoms where, he told me, moisture lay slumbering just a few meters beneath the surface of the soil. We parted the next day. The next year the first world war broke out, in which I was engaged for five years. An infantryman could hardly think about trees. With the war behind me, I found myself with a small demobilization bonus but with a great desire to breathe a little pure air. Without any preconceived notion beyond that, I struck out again along the trail through that deserted country. The land had not changed. Nonetheless, beyond that dead village I perceived in the distance a sort of gray fog that covered the hills like a carpet. Ever since the day before I had been thinking about the shepherd who planted trees. «Ten thousand oaks, I had said to myself, must really take up a lot of space.» I had seen too many people die during those 5 years not to be able to imagine easily the death of Elzéard Bouffier, especially since a twenty-year-old thinks that fifty-year-olds are old codgers for whom nothing remains but to die. He was not dead. He had changed profession. He only had four sheep now, but to make up for this he had about a hundred beehives. He had gotten rid of the sheep because they threatened his crop of trees. The war had not disturbed him at all. He had continued imperturbably with his planting. The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old and were taller than me and him. The spectacle was impressive. I was literally speechless and, as he didn't speak himself, we passed the whole day in silence, walking through his forest. It was in three sections, eleven kilometers long overall and, at its widest point, three kilometers wide. Considering that this had all sprung from the hands and the soul of this one man - without technical aids - it becomes clear that men could be as effective as God in domains other than destruction. He had followed his idea, and the beeches everywhere, reaching up to my shoulders, bore witness to it. The oaks were growing densely and had passed the age where they were at the mercy of rodents; as for the designs of Providence, to destroy the work that had been created, would henceforth require a cyclone. He showed me admirable stands of birches that dated from five years ago, that is to say from 1915, when I had been fighting at Verdun. He had planted them in the valley bottoms, where he had correctly suspected that there was water close to the surface. They were as tender as young girls, and very determined. This creation had the air, moreover, of working by a chain reaction. He had not troubled about it; he went on obstinately with his simple task. But, in going back down to the village, I saw water running in streams which, within living memory, had always been dry. It was the most striking revival that he had shown me. These streams had borne water before, in ancient days. Certain ones of the sad villages that I spoke of at the beginning of my account had been built on the sites of ancient Gallo-Roman villages, of which there still remained traces; archeologists digging there had found fishhooks in places where in more recent times cisterns were required in order to have a little water. The wind had also been at work, dispersing certain seeds. As the water re-appeared, so too did willows, osiers, meadows, gardens, flowers, and a certain way of living. But the transformation had taken place so slowly that it was taken for granted, without provoking surprise. The hunters who climbed the hills in search of hares or wild boars had noticed the spreading of the little trees, but they set it down to the natural spitefulness of the earth. That is why no one had touched the work of this man. If they had suspected him, they would have tried to thwart him. But he never came under suspicion. What villager or administrator could have imaged that anyone could show such obstinacy in being so magnificently generous? Since 1920 I never let more than a year go by without paying a visit to Elzéard Bouffier. I never saw him waver or doubt. Yet God knows if God's own hand is in a thing! I've said nothing of his disappointments, but you can easily imagine that, for such an accomplishment, he had to conquer adversity; that, to assure the victory of such a passion, he had to fight against despair. To get a true 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 talking. Or maybe he just didn't see the need for it. In 1933 he received the visit of an astonished forest ranger. This functionary ordered him to cease building fires outdoors, for fear of endangering this natural forest. It was the first time, this naive man told him, that a forest had been observed to grow up entirely on its own. In 1935, a veritable administrative delegation went to examine this « natural forest ». There was a bigwig from Waters and Forests, a deputy, some technicians. Many useless words were spoken. It was decided to do something but luckily nothing was done, except the only useful thing : placing the forest under the protection of the State and forbidding anyone from coming there to make charcoal. For it was impossible not to be taken with the beauty of these young trees in full health. And the forest exercised its seductive powers even on the deputy himself. I had a friend among the chief foresters who were with the delegation. I explained the mystery to him. One day the next week, we went off together to look for Elzéard Bouffier. We found him hard at work, 20km away from the place where the inspection had taken place. This chief forester was not my friend for nothing. He understood the value of things. I offered up some eggs I had brought with me as a gift. We split our snack three ways, and then passed several hours in mute contemplation of the landscape. The hillside whence we had come was covered with trees six or seven meters high. I remembered the look of the place in 1913 : a desert... The peaceful and steady labor, the vibrant highland air, his frugality, and above all, the serenity of his soul had given the old man a kind of solemn good health. He was an athlete of God. I asked myself how many hectares he had yet to cover with trees. Before leaving, my friend made a simple suggestion concerning certain species of trees to which the terrain seemed to be particularly well suited. He was not insistent. He told me later « Because this fellow knows more about this than I do. » After another hour of walking, this thought having travelled along with him, he added : « He knows a lot more about this than anybody - and he has found a great way of being happy !» It was thanks to this chief forester that the forest was protected, and with it, the happiness of this man. The forest did not run any grave risks except during the war of 1939. Then automobiles were being run on wood alcohol, and there was never enough wood. They began to cut some of the oaks of 1910, but the trees stood so far from any useful road that the enterprise was a bad investment. It was abandoned. The shepherd never knew anything about it. He was 30km away, peacefully continuing his task, as untroubled by the second world war as he had been by the first. I saw Elzéard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945. He was then 87 years old. I had once more set off along my trail through the wilderness, only to find that now, in spite of the shambles in which the war had left the whole country, there was a motor coach running between the valley of the Durance and the mountains. I set down to this relatively rapid means of transportation the fact that I no longer recognized the landmarks I knew from my earlier visits. The name of a village assured me that I was indeed passing through that same region, once so ruined and desolate. The coach set me down at Vergons. In 1913, this hamlet of ten or twelve houses had had three inhabitants. They were savages, hating each other, and earning their living by trapping : Their situation in life was hopeless. Everything had changed. Even the air itself. In place of the dry, brutal gusts that had greeted me long ago, there was a gentle breeze, full of sweet odors. A sound like that of running water came from the heights above : It was the sound of the wind in the trees. And most astonishing of all, I heard the sound of real water running into a pool. I saw that they had built a fountain, that it was full of water, and what touched me most, that next to it they had planted a lime-tree, an incontestable symbol of resurrection. Furthermore, Vergons showed the signs of labors for which hope is a requirement. Hope had therefore returned. They had cleared out the ruins, knocked down the broken walls. The new houses, freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens that bore, mixed but orderly, vegetables and flowers, cabbages and rosebushes, leeks and gueules-de-loup, celery and anemones. It was now a place where anyone would be glad to live. From there I continued on foot. The war from which we had just barely emerged had not permitted life to vanish completely, and now Lazarus was out of his tomb. On the lower flanks of the mountains, I saw small fields of barley and rye; in narrow valleys meadowlands were just turning green. It had taken only eight years for the whole country to blossom with splendor and ease. On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913, there are now well-kept farms, the sign of a happy and comfortable life. The old springs, fed by the rain and snow that the forests retain, have once again begun to flow. Beside each farm, amid groves of maples, the pools of fountains are bordered by carpets of fresh mint. Little by little, the villages have been rebuilt. Yuppies have come from the plains, where land is expensive, they had settled here, bringing with them youth, movement, and a spirit of adventure. Walking along the roads you will meet men and women in full health, boys and girls who know how to laugh, and who have regained the taste for the traditional rustic festivals. Counting both the previous inhabitants of the area, now unrecognizable from living in plenty, and the new arrivals, more than ten thousand persons owe their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier. When I consider that a single man, relying only on his own simple physical and moral resources, was able to transform a desert into this land of Canaan, I find that despite everything, the human condition is truly admirable. But when I take into account the constancy, the greatness of soul, and the selfless dedication necessary to bring about this transformation, I am filled with an immense respect for this old, uncultured peasant who knew how to bring about a work worthy of God. Elzéard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the hospice in Banon.

Video Details

Duration: 30 minutes and 3 seconds
Country: Andorra
Language: French (France)
License: Public Domain
Genre: Animated
Producer: Frédéric Back
Director: Frédéric Back
Views: 123,760
Posted by: junesun on Dec 6, 2007

Beautiful award-winning animated film based on an short story (also public domain) by Jean Giono. Features a message about the power of the individual and has inspired wild tree-planting worldwide.

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