The Man Who Planted Trees
French cover for the pop-up version of the book.
|Original title||L'homme qui plantait des arbres|
The Man Who Planted Trees (French title: L'homme qui plantait des arbres) is a short story published in 1953 by French author Jean Giono. An allegorical tale, it tells the story of one shepherd's long and successful single-handed effort to re-forest a desolate valley in the foothills of the Alps in Provence throughout the first half of the 20th century. It was written in French, but first published in English.
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.
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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.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
- It was adapted as an animated short by Frédéric Back and released in 1987. It earned a number of awards including an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
- In 2006, it was adapted for the stage and puppets by Richard Medrington of "Puppet State Theatre Company" in Edinburgh, Scotland.
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 15 May) with narration by Robert J. Lurtsema. It has also been recorded for BBC Radio 4 with Bill Paterson narrating.
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.
Environmentalist and silvologist Gabriel Hemery wrote a sequel in 2016 titled: The Man Who Harvested Trees and Gifted Life. The short story follows a girl's life-long relationship with a forest and its trees. 
- "Puppet State Theatre Company homepage".
- 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
- Gabriel Hemery, The Man Who Harvested Trees and Gifted Life. Independent Publishing, 2016. ISBN 1520660626 https://gabrielhemery.com/books/