The book that lifted my spirits from the climate change funk into which they had sunk the other day is The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. Sent to me not long ago by my friend Cath, it could not have been more timely.
It is a heartwarming and hopeful story about Elzéard Bouffier. In 1913 our narrator is walking through the Provence region of France and comes into a desolate and empty area. The small village he walks through is in ruins, the fields are brown and dusty, there are few trees and the wells and streams had all gone dry. But just beyond this area he comes upon a shepherd living alone with his small flock of sheep and his dog at the edge of a small forest.
It turns out Bouffier had planted all the trees in the area. Each day when he gets up he sorts 100 good acorns to plant as he walks. He had, single handedly planted one hundred thousand trees over the course of three years. He was also studying beech tree reproduction and had a small nursery next to his tidy cabin.
Our narrator returns after WWI to see what time had done to Bouffier’s trees and to discover if he was still alive. Alive and well, Bouffier’s forest had grown ever larger. He had given up keeping sheep because they threatened the tree seedlings and turned to bee keeping. And he was still planting trees. The forest Bouffier created now measured eleven kilometers in length and three kilometers across at its widest. Water and animals had returned to the dry land and now nature herself was helping plant trees too.
Eventually the state was alerted to the existence of the forest and eager to protect it, a ranger knocked on Bouffier’s door in 1933 and told him he was not allowed to have any fires as a precaution to keep the “natural” forest safe.
The forest grew so large that Bouffier moved house twelve kilometers away to the edge of his forest so he didn’t have to walk so far each day in order to plant more trees. The deserted village was revived and rebuilt, people took care of their forest and even planted trees in their gardens. And Bouffier died peacefully in 1947.
It is a simple story and when I began reading it I thought it was fiction but then the style of the telling made me think that maybe it was nonfiction. And I kept vacillating between fiction and nonfiction. Finally, by the end, I wanted it so badly to be true I decided it was nonfiction and Bouffier had been real. Only to learn in the Afterword that the story is indeed fiction. Apparently I am not alone in my confusion. Giono, the story’s author, was asked in 1953 by some American editors to write a few pages about an unforgettable character. Giono created Bouffier but the editors had wanted the story to be about a real person so ended up rejecting it. Giono decided to give his story away to anyone who wanted it. In 1953 Vogue published it as “The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness.”
Giono was a well-known author and wrote many books and stories but of this one he said:
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.
But I was pleased to learn the story of Bouffier is based on a real person. Giono was on a walking tour in Provence in 1913 and discovered a deserted high plateau where the wind growled like a lion. Afraid and suffering a bit from exposure, he saw mirages. He did meet a shepherd who planted trees and who eventually switched from sheep to bees. This shepherd’s forest was not as extensive as Bouffier’s in the story, but it did heal the land, reviving dry streams, promoting the creation of meadows and the germination of flowers.
The Man Who Planted Trees is a hopeful story, simple and, while fiction, true at its foundation. It is a reminder of the great things one person can do, day by day, a little at a time. It is a book I will be always keeping at hand when my spirit needs a lift and I feel like nothing I can do will make a difference. It will remind me not to give up, that it does matter, and I do have an impact. I highly recommend the book for anyone else who feels in need of an uplifting story.