The Man Who Planted Trees

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For the 1987 film version, see The Man Who Planted Trees (film).
The Man Who Planted Trees
French cover
French cover
Author Jean Giono
Original title L'homme qui plantait des arbres
Genre Fiction
Publication date

The Man Who Planted Trees (French title L'homme qui plantait des arbres), also known as The Story of Elzéard Bouffier, The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met, and The Man Who Planted Hope and Reaped Happiness, is an allegorical tale by French author Jean Giono, published in 1953.

It tells the story of one shepherd's long and successful singlehanded effort to re-forest a desolate valley in the foothills of the Alps in Provence throughout the first half of the 20th century. The tale is quite short—only about 4000 words long. It was composed in French, but first published in English.


The story begins in the year 1913, when this young man is undertaking a lone hiking trip through Provence, France, and into the Alps, enjoying the relatively unspoiled wilderness.

The narrator runs out of water in a treeless, desolate valley where only wild lavender grows and there is no trace of civilization except old, empty crumbling buildings. The narrator finds only a dried up well, but is saved by a middle-aged shepherd who takes him to a spring he knows of.

Curious about this man and why he has chosen such a lonely life, the narrator stays with him for a time. The shepherd, after being widowed, has decided to restore the ruined landscape of the isolated and largely abandoned valley by single-handedly cultivating a forest, tree by tree. The shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, makes holes in the ground with his curling pole and drops into the holes acorns that he has collected from many miles away.

The narrator leaves the shepherd and returns home, and later fights in the First World War. In 1920, shell-shocked and depressed after the war, the man returns. He is surprised to see young saplings of all forms taking root in the valley, and new streams running through it where the shepherd has made dams higher up in the mountain. The narrator makes a full recovery in the peace and beauty of the regrowing valley, and continues to visit Bouffier every year. Bouffier is no longer a shepherd, because he is worried about the sheep affecting his young trees, and has become a bee keeper instead.

Over four decades, Bouffier continues to plant trees, and the valley is turned into a kind of Garden of Eden. By the end of the story, the valley is vibrant with life and is peacefully settled. The valley receives official protection after the First World War. (the authorities mistakenly believe that the rapid growth of this forest is a bizarre natural phenomenon, as they are unaware of Bouffier's selfless deeds), and more than 10,000 people move there, all of them unknowingly owing their happiness to Bouffier. The narrator tells one of his friends in the government the truth about the natural forest, and the friend also helps protect the forest.

The narrator visits the now very old Bouffier one last time in 1945. In a hospice in Banon, in 1947, the man who planted trees peacefully passes away.

A true story?[edit]

The story itself is so touching that many readers have believed that Elzéard Bouffier was a genuine historical figure and that the narrator of the story was a young Jean Giono himself, and that the tale is part autobiographical. Certainly, Giono lived during this time. While he was alive, Giono enjoyed allowing people to believe that the story was real, and considered it as a tribute to his skill. His daughter, Aline Giono, described it as "a family story for a long time". However, Giono himself explained in a 1957 letter to an official of the city of Digne:

Sorry to disappoint you, but Elzéard Bouffier is a fictional person. The goal was to make trees likeable, or more specifically, make planting trees likeable.

In the letter, he describes how the book was translated in a multitude of languages, distributed freely, and therefore was a success. He adds that, although "it does not bring me a cent", it is one of the texts of which he is most proud.

Sadly although the book has inspired many people, it could not have been a true story, because sheep eat tree seedlings,[1] so any shepherd who planted acorns where his sheep were grazing would have been largely wasting his time.

Real Life Counterparts[edit]


Ma, Yongshun[2] (马永顺) (1914-2000), a forestry worker from Yichun city in Heilongjiang province located in Northeast China who, during his career, chopped down 36,500 trees for China's development, single-handedly planted more than 35,500 trees since the 1960s. Each spring he would plant trees using his free time before work, after work, during lunch time, and after his retirement. Later, at the age of 78 he recruited the help of his family and thus he was able to fully fulfill his promise to the mountain by planting, in total, more than 50,000 trees. By 1996 he had built a breeding base for trees of high quality. He had inspired many people to help the environment and had taught many people to plant trees (his students’ tree planting efforts have a success rate of 95%).[3]


In Kerala, Abdul Kareem[4] of Parappa village in Kasaragod, created a 32 acre forest out of nothing over a period of 19 years, using the same method as Bouffier.[5][6]

In Assam, Jadav Payeng, planted a forest sprawling 1,360 acres, calling it the Molai forest.[7][8][9][10][11]


From 1975 to 1985 in Burkina Faso Sahel region between the Sahara Desert and the rich soils of the South suffered extensive famine and drought resulting in farmers abandoning their land for cities, using an Ancient farming technique call Zaï, a Muslim man Yacouba Sawadogo first considered a madman by his sometimes vindictive neighbors single handedly, converted 30 acres of barren land to a forest consisting of six different species of trees. His farming techniques also proved to be productive and resulted in the return of settlers.[12][13] He is portrayed in a documentary film called The Man who Stopped the Desert (2010).

Marthinus Daneel, PhD, Professor of African studies at Boston University and founder of ZIRRCON (Zimbabwean Institute of Religious Research and Ecological Conservation). Daneel has worked with churches for years planting millions of trees in Zimbabwe. Due to instability in Zimbabwe in recent years, such efforts have been significantly curtailed.

The charity Tree Aid work mostly in sub-Saharan Africa helping people to improve their lives and environments, especially by planting trees for food and other useful products.[1]


Lai Pei-yuan started to plant trees since 1986, buying lands and tree seeds using his own personal wealth, and has planted over 270,000 deep-rooted trees.[14] [15]

Bhausaheb Thorat planted 45 million seeds after being inspired by the book. For this he started the Dandakaranya Abhiyaan in June 2006 at Sangamner, Maharashtra, India (Sangamner is on Pune-Nasik highway). UNEP has taken notice of this campaign in its A Billion Tree Campaign in which almost 45 million seedlings have been planted.[16] Harmony magazine's Tina Anil Ambani has an article on Bhausaheb Thorat's global warming awareness efforts and his Dandakaranya Abhiyaan in the December 2008 edition.[17]


In Borneo, Dr Willie Smits, bought up nearly 2000 ha of deforested degraded land in East Kalimantan that had suffered from mechanical logging, drought and severe fires and was covered in alang-alang grass. In a project called Samboja Lestari an area was reforested.

The Groasis Waterboxx was designed specifically to establish trees in areas undergoing desertification. It collects dew and infrequent rain, and slowly releases it to the plants roots, promoting deeper root growth.[18]


German artist Joseph Beuys planted 7,000 trees with the help of volunteers over a five year period from 1982 in Kassel, Germany for his land art work 7000 Oaks.[19]

United States[edit]

Allen Nease, an American pioneer of reforestation and conservation efforts in Florida in the mid-20th century, planted over 55 million pine trees and was nicknamed "Johnny Pine nut."

19th century American tree planter Johnny Appleseed.

National and Organizational Efforts[edit]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

Spoken word recordings[edit]

In 1985 the Paul Winter Consort recorded an album with Robert J. Lurtsema as the narrator. It was made into a book-on-tape in 1990 by Earth Music Productions. In 1992, the American radio show "Hearts of Space" did a musically-accompanied reading (episode 290, first aired on 15May1992) with narration by Robert J. Lurtsema. It has also been recorded for BBC Radio 4 with Bill Paterson narrating.

Related works[edit]

The original book has inspired a 2012 book on the same theme: The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet by Jim Robbins. Robbins work cites Giono's work and goes on to consider the modern-day work of David Milarch, a Michigan nurseryman. [21]


  1. ^ Oliver Rackham, Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape, 1990. Phoenix, Orion Books Ltd, London. ISBN 1857994558
  2. ^ "马永顺". 
  3. ^ United Nations Environment Programme Global 500
  4. ^
  5. ^ Abdul Kareem's Forest
  6. ^ "In India, One Man Creates a Forest". Archived from the original on 19 October 2007. 
  7. ^ "Indian Man, Jadav "Molai" Payeng, Single-Handedly Plants A 1,360 Acre Forest In Assam". The Huffington Post. 
  8. ^ "Indian Man Single-Handedly Plants a 1,360 Acre Forest". MNN - Mother Nature Network. 
  9. ^ The man who made a forest
  10. ^ Man creates forest single-handedly on Brahmaputra sand bar
  11. ^ "Indian Man Single-Handedly Plants a Whole Forest". 
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ King of the Trees safeguarding Taiwan's forests
  15. ^ Believing in trees: The man who dedicates his life to growing trees
  16. ^ UNEP Billion Tree Campaign
  17. ^ "Seeds of a revolution". Harmony Magazine. 2008. Retrieved 31 October 2010. 
  18. ^ Parsons, Sarah (4 December 2010). "Groasis Waterboxx can grow trees in any climate – even the desert". Inhabitat. Retrieved 2013-12-01. 
  19. ^ Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks - DIA Art Foundation
  20. ^ "Puppet State Theatre Company homepage". 
  21. ^ Jim Robbins, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet, Spiegel & Grau Random House Group, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4000-6906-4

External links[edit]