The Man Who Planted Trees

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The Man Who Planted Trees
French cover
French cover
Author Jean Giono
Original title L'homme qui plantait des arbres
Genre Fiction
Publication date
1953

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.

Plot[edit]

The story begins in the year 1910, 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.

Real-life counterparts[edit]

Real-life people in other countries have produced similar effects. Ma, Yongshun[1] (马永顺) (1914-2000), a forestry worker who, during his career, chopped down 36,500 trees for China's development, single-handedly planted more than 35,500 trees since the 1960's. 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%).[2] Abdul Karim in India created a forest out of nothing over a period of 19 years, using the same method as Bouffier.[3][4] Another man, Jadav Payeng, planted a forest sprawling 1,360 acres, calling it the Molai forest, in Assam, India.[5][6][7][8][9] An organization called Trees for the Future has assisted more than 170,000 families, in 6,800 villages of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, to plant over 35 million trees.[10] Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, founded the Green Belt Movement which planted over 47 million trees to restore the Kenyan environment.[11] Shanghai Roots & Shoots, a division of the Jane Goodall Institute, launched The Million Tree Project in Kulun Qi, Inner Mongolia to plant one million trees to stop desertification and alleviate global warming.[12][13]

The character of Bouffier has some similarity to the legendary early 19th century American tree planter Johnny Appleseed. Another tireless promoter of tree-planting is 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. Similarly, concerned about global warming, 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.[14] 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.[15]

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. [17]

References[edit]

External links[edit]