• A message grows from a tree-planting fable
     | October 09,2005

    "The Man Who Planted Trees" by Jean Giono. Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2005, 61 pages, $17.50.

    The Bill Gateses of the world give computers and art and cancer wings. My father developed software for the deaf. I read to a child every week. My friends and acquaintances give of themselves to hospices and food shelves, to mental health clinics and land trusts. I've long wondered if one of the most heartbreaking aspects of illiteracy and crushing poverty might be the despair of not knowing whether one's life has any meaning. For most people I know, giving affirms their life's value. Small wonder that so many religions promise a life's validation and recognition beyond the grave.

    Elzeard Bouffier's faith was in acorns. Left alone by the death of his wife and child, he herded a few sheep in a deserted valley deep in the Alps, in Provence. He had little and wanted for nothing, but the landscape over which his sheep grazed was desolate and burned his eyes with its barrenness. The closest villages were days away by foot, and most of these were small, miserable collections of denuded, abandoned ruins. Water was scarce. Rain fell, but there was nothing to keep it from cutting channels in the eroded soil. The wind was harsh, unbroken by tree branches through which it could whisper and sing. Without places to rest and roost, birds had fled. Wildlife could not survive. As far as the eye could see, the Earth cried out for renewal.

    Bouffier started planting acorns. Walking alone day after day over the hills and through the barren meadows, he plunged an iron rod into the ground at regular intervals and carefully placed an oak seed at the bottom of the hole. In three years, he planted 100,000 acorns, of which 20,000 sprouted. Of those, he calculated 10,000 would survive. He did not own the land he was reforesting; what he possessed was hope. During World War I, while much of Europe was being laid waste, Bouffier quietly continued planting trees oaks, beeches and birches. Life returned. Seeds scattered by the wind took root, water ran in brooks again. Bouffier carried on equally unaffected by World War II, and as his forest of millions of trees spread and overtook abandoned villages, the communities, too, returned to life. People repaired the broken houses and began rearing their children there; women planted vegetables and flower gardens in their backyards; men once again took plows into the fields. Eventually, the French government stepped in to protect this astonishing resource without ever knowing that what it called a "natural" forest was, in fact, the product of one man's lifelong devotion.

    Jean Giono's fable, "The Man Who Planted Trees," is a story for all times and all people. Written in 1953 for an anthology of stories about inspiring people, it was ultimately rejected because the tale it told was invented. No Bouffier ever lived in Banon, France. Unconcerned, Giono turned the story over with no thought of payment to "Vogue," which published it in March 1954. Faster than any tree grows, the story traveled around the world and was translated into at least a dozen languages. Although Giono went on to write prolifically and to win the Prix de Monaco for his contribution to French 20th century literature, this eloquent story which never earned him penny, but which actually was responsible for the planting of untold millions of trees was his greatest gift.

    Chelsea Green Publishing Co., in White River Junction, has now issued a 20th-anniversary edition of "The Man Who Planted Trees." The illustrations, original wood engravings by Michael McCurdy, accompanied Chelsea Green Press's first edition of the book, in 1985. As deceptively simple as the text, they are breathtaking and worthy of being framed. In this new, anniversary edition Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her Green Belt Movement, which brought trees and hope to the people of Kenya, writes the foreword. Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople, who proved in Los Angeles that trees have a vital place in urban ecosystems, writes a new afterword to accompany the original, stodgy and pedantic one written 20 years ago by Norma L. Goodrich. This book also contains information about how to become involved in the vital work of planting trees here and around the world.

    Those too busy to read all this extraneous material nevertheless should make time to read the story of Elzeard Bouffier. "The Man Who Planted Trees" is a remarkable tale of character and selflessness. Written plainly and gently, it is a tale everyone should read.

    Bouffier's acorns are metaphors. This lone peasant, Giono writes, "armed with only his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland. I am taken with an immense respect for that old and unlearned peasant who was able to complete a work worthy of God." Just as a hurricane can start with the flutter of a butterfly's wings, Giono's message is that we, too, can generously work to change the world. Hug a child. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Give blood. Walk, don't drive. The world's acorns come in a dizzying array of disguises.

    Nancy Price Graff is a Montpelier writer and editor.

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