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The Man Who Planted Trees (Canada)

"The Man Who Planted Trees" tells the story of a solitary sheperd who patiently plants and nurtures a forest of thousands of trees, single-handedly transforming his arid surroundings into a thriving oasis. Undeterred by two World Wars, and without any thought of personal reward, the sheperd tirelessly sows his seeds and acorns with the greatest care. As if by magic, a landscape that seemed condemned grows green again. A film of great beauty and hope, this story is a remarkable parable for all ages and an inspiring testament to the power of one person.

The transcription is incomplete, it stops at 10:40.

           The man who planted trees. A story by Jean Giono

Many years ago I set out on a walking tour high in the Alps, a region quite unknown to travellers, by ancient mountains that extend down into Provence. The track begun on barren mounts, 12 to 13 hundred meters above sea level, through land that was bleak and monotonous. Nothing grew there but wild lavender. My route led across a region at its widest point and after hiking for three days, I found myself in a waste land, desolate, beyond description.

I made camp near the remains of an abandoned village.  The day before my water supply had run out and I had to find some.  The cluster of houses although they were in ruin reminding me of an old wasps nest, make me think that once there must have been a fountain or perhaps a well.  There was indeed a fountain. But it was dry.  The roofless houses eaten away by wind and rain, and the chapel with its crumbling belfry,  stood arranged like houses and churches in a living village, but here life had vanished.

It was a sunny, cloudless June day but over these bare highs, blow a fierce, insufferable wind. Growling through the skeleton of the houses, it sounded like a wild beast disturbed while feeding on its prey.  I had to move camp.

After five hours of walking, I still had found no water, and I could see nothing that gave me hope of finding any.  Everywhere, I came upon the same drought, the same coarse weeds.  In a distance, something caught my eye.  A thin dark shape that I took for a tree trunk. But just in case, I walked towards it.  It was a shepherd.  And beside him, resting on the burning ground laid about thirty sheep.  He let me drink from his gourde, and pleasantly he led me to his sheep whole in a hollow in the plain.  He drew water - excellent water it was too - from a very deep natural well, over which he had rimmed a simple windlass.  The man spoke very little. Often the way with people who live alone,  but he appeared sure of himself and confident in his assurance.

It all seemed somehow strange in this barren land.  He lived not in a hut but in a real house, a stone house, whose walls clearly show how his own labour had repaired the ruin that had once been. Its roof was solid and strong. And the wind on its tile sounded like the sea upon the seashore. Inside was neat and tidy, dishes washed, floor swept, shot gun oiled, his soup simmered over the fire. And I noticed that he was freshly shaved, and all his buttons were firmly sewed on, and his clothes were done with that meticulous care which makes the darn invisible.

He shared his soup with me. When I offered him my tobacco pouch, he told me he did not smoke. The dog, silent like his master, was friendly without vileness. It had been agreed that I would spend the night; the nearest village was still almost two days walk away. Villages in this region were few and far between and I knew well what they were like four or five of them were scattered over the slopes of these highlands, each one at the very end of track among corpses of white oaks.

They were inhabited by charcoal burners.  They’re living was poor. The families hollow together in a climate very harsh both in summer and winter, found their struggle for survival made more bitter by their isolation. There was no relief. The constant longing to escape became a crazy ambition. Endlessly the men carted their charcoal to town then returned home. Even the most stable characters cracked under the constant behind. The women seed the resentment, there was rivalry in everything, the sale of charcoal and the church pee, they were rivals in virtue and rivals in vice. And the battle between vice and virtue raged incessantly.

And on this there was the wind, they had a present wind, constantly grating on the nerves.  There was epidemic of suicide, and many cases of madness, nearly always ending in murder. The shepherd, who did not smoke, went to fetch a little sac and onto the table he emptied a pile of acorns. He began to examine them very carefully, one by one, separating the good from the bad.  I sat, smoking my pipe. I offered to help but he told me it was his work. And indeed, seeing how very carefully he carried out his task, I did not insist. That was the only time we spoke.

When he had set aside enough acorns, he divided them into piles of ten. As he did this he discarded the smaller ones or those that were cracked, but now he was examining them very very closely. When finally there laid before him a hundred perfect acorns, he stopped. And we went to our beds.  Being with this man brought a great sense of peace. The following morning, I asked him if I might stay on and rest for the day. He found that quite natural or to be more precise he gave me the impression that nothing could upset him.

A day of rest was not absolutely necessary but I was intrigued and I wanted to learn more about him. He let his sheep out of their pen and led them to their grazing. Before he went, he took a little bag of carefully chosen acorns and put them to a pail of water to soak. I noticed that for a walking stick, he carried an iron rod, thick as my thumb and about as height as my shoulder.

Pretending to take a leisurely stroll, I followed him at a distance but keeping on a parallel path with him. The pasture for his sheep was down in a dell leaving his dog in charge of the little flock, he begun to climb towards me where I was standing. I feared he was coming to reproach me. Not at all.

It happened to be on his way and he invited me to go with him, if I had nothing better to do.  He was going a little further on, to the top of the hill. When we reached his destination, he began to drive his iron rod into the ground. He made a hole, dropped in an acorn, and filled in the hole. He was planting oak trees. I asked him if he owned the land. He said no. Did he know who owned it?  He did not. He thought it was common land, parish property or perhaps it belonged to people who did not care about it? That did not concern him.

So with infinite care, he planted his hundred acorns. After the midday meal, he began to sort out more of his acorns. I supposed I must have been quite insistent with my questions, because he answered me. For three years, he had been planting trees in that desolate country. He had planted 100 000. Of the 100 000, 20 000 had come up. Of these, he still expected to lose half either to rodents or to any of the unpredictable things which only Providence can account for. That left 10 000 oaks to grow on this track of land where before there was nothing.

It was then that I wonder about the man’s age. He was clearly more than fifty. Fifty-five, he told me. His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He had owned a farm down in the lowlands. It had been his life. He had lost his only son, and then his wife. And had withdrawn into this solitude, where he was contempt to live quietly, with his lambs and his dog.

It was his opinion that the land was dying for lack of trees. He added that, having nothing very important to do himself, he had resolved to remedy this state of affairs. I was young and only thought of the future that affected me and my search for happiness. I told him that in 30 years, those 10 000 oaks would be magnificent. He answered quite simply that if God granted him life, in 30 years, he would have planted so many more that these 10 000 would be like a drop of water in the sea.

Already he was studying the growth of beech trees and had a nursery full of seedlings grown from beech nuts. They’re quite beautiful. He was also thinking of birches for the dells, where he told me there was moisture just below the surface of the soil. 

The next day, we parted. The following year came the 1st World War, in which I was engaged for five years. An infantryman was hardly likely to have trees on his mind. After demobilisation, I found myself the possessor of a small gratuity and a great desire to breathe pure air. This was my only thought when I set off once more on the road to the barren land. The country had not changed.  However in the distance, beyond the deserted village, I noticed a sort of blemish mist that lay on the hill tops like a carpet. The shepherd who planted trees had been in my mind since the day before.

10 000 oak trees...I thought to myself... really need a lot of space. I had seen so many people die in those 5 years that it was easy to imagine that Elzéard Bouffier, too, was dead, especially since at 20 we think of men of 50 as ancient with nothing left to do but die.  He was not dead. He has changed his occupation. He had only four sheep left, but now he had over a hundred hives and bees. He had given up sheep because they threatened his young trees. War had not disturbed him and he had calmly continued his planting.

The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old and taller than either of us. It was such an impressive sight, I was stricken down, and as he never said a word, we spend the whole day in silence, walking through his forest. It was in three sections, I measured 11 km long and 3 km at its widest.  When I reminded myself that all this was the work of the hand and soul of one man, with no mechanical help, it seemed to me that man could be as effective as God in tasks other than destruction.

He had followed his dream and beech trees as high as my shoulder, stretching as far as the eye could see were witness to it. The oaks were strong and passed being at the mercy of rodents; as for Providence, she would have made a cyclone to destroy this creation of man. He showed me handsome groves of 5 yr old birches planted in 1915, the year I was fighting at the battle of Verdun. He had set them out in all the hollows where he guessed, and rightly, there was moisture near the surface. They were like young children, tender but firm and confident. And creation, it seemed, had just followed in a natural sequence. He hadn't worried about it. Resolutely, he had gone about his simple task.

On the way down, through the village, I saw streams flowing with water, which in living memory had always been dry. This was truly the most impressive effect of creation's natural cycle that I ever seen. Long ago, these brooks had been full of water. Amongst the miserable villages I mentioned before some were built on sites of ancient Roman villages, and archaeologists digging in the ruins had found fish hooks. Whereas in the 20th century, cisterns were needed to ensure even a modest supply of water.

The wind had scattered seeds too. And as the water reappeared, so did willow trees, reeds, meadows, gardens, flowers and a reason for living. But the change had come about so gradually and that it was simply taken for granted. Of course, hunters who climbed these heights in search of hares and wild boar, had noticed the sudden appearance of little trees  but they'd put it down to some caprice of Nature. That is why no one had mingled with the work of the shepherd, if they'd suspected it was man’s work, they would have interfered. But who would even think of him, who in the villages, or among the authorities, could ever have imagined such constant magnificent generosity?

Each year from 1920 on, I paid a visit to Elzéard Bouffier. I never saw him lose heart, nor was he ever deterred, and often, God knows, it must have seemed that Heaven itself was against him.



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