THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES
WOOD ENGRAVINGS BY MICHAEL McCURDY
CHELSEA GREEN PUBLISHING COMPANY 1985
- 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 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.
- A friend of mine was among the forestry officers of the delegation. To him I explained the mystery. The following week we went to see Elzéard Bouffier. We found him hard at work, some ten kilometers from the spot where the inspection had taken place.
- 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 an 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 that Bouffier knows more about it than I do. 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. 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.
- I saw Elzéard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945. He was then eighty-seven. 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 man.
- 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 grew in orderly confusion, cabbages and roses, leeks and snapdragons, celery and anemones. It was now a village where one would like to live.
- It has taken only 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 over-flow onto carpets of fresh mint.
- People from the plains, where land is costly, have settled here, bringing youth, motion, the spirit of adventure. Counting the former population, unrecognizable now that they live in comfort, more than ten thousand people owe their happiness to Elzéard 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.
- Elzéard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the hospice in Banon.
- I mustered enough courage to call upon Jean Giono in Manosque, Provence, at 11.00 am, August 15, 1970. His older daughter, Aline Giono, down from Paris for a few days, ushered me into the garden of their hillside home.
- Then dying from heart disease, Giono sat at a table, unable to walk any more, he told me at once.
- I could not believe his cultured voice, for I knew he was self-taught. I have never recovered from the site of him. He was positively stunning: slender, silver-haired, elegant, with delicate features, rosy cheeks, hooded blue eyes, casually dressed in slacks and mauve shirt.
- He begged me to stay and made me promise to return. I left that first day loaded down with gifts of his unpublished and privately published works, which I sent immediately to Butler Library, Columbia University.
- Less than two months later, Jean Giono died, midway through his seventy-fifth year.
- Giono lived virtually his entire life in the little city of Manosque. His elderly father was a cobbler and his mother, he tells us in his early novel Jean le Bleu (Blue Boy), ran a hand laundry.
- This family of three resided in the poorest of tenements where the child had only a blue view down into the well, or courtyard. At age sixteen, becoming sole support of the family, Giono left school and went to clerk in a bank.
- Eighteen years later, in 1929, he published his first two novels, Colline (Hill of Destiny) and Un de Baumugnes (Lovers Are Never Losers), both rave successes, in part thanks to instant sponsorship of André Gide.
- Years afterward Giono recalled the turning point in his life, that moment in the afternoon of December 20, 1911, when he could spare enough pennies to purchase the cheapest book he could find.
- It turned out to be a copy of Virgil’s poems. He never forgot that first flush of his own creative energy: “My heart soared.”
- Giono ran into difficulties with the American editors who in 1953 asked him to write a few pages about an unforgettable character. When what he wrote met with the objection that no “Bouffier” had died in the shelter at Banon, Giono donated his pages to all and sundry. It was accepted by Vogue and published in March 1954 as “The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness.”
- Within a few years the story of Elzéard Bouffier swept around the world and was translated into at least a dozen languages. It has long since inspired reforestation efforts, worldwide.
- We see from the opening sentence of the story how Giono interpreted the word “character,” an individuality unforgettable if unselfish, generous beyond measure, leaving on earth its mark without thought of reward.
- Giono believed he left his mark on earth when he wrote Elzéard Bouffier’s story because he gave it away for the good of others, heedless of payment: “It is one of my stories of which I am the proudest. It does not bring me in one single penny and that is why it has accomplished what it was written for.”