‘The Man Who Planted Trees’ offers hopes for our suffering planet
Like the parables of Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the Beloved Community, it is the poetic word, the storyteller’s vision that can break open the human imagination to possibilities not yet realized. The French writer Jean Giono’s timeless short story “The Man Who Planted Trees,” published in 1953, offers a vision of hopefulness that our suffering planet badly needs today, a prescient parable for coming to grips with climate change and the call to “environmental conversion,” as Pope Francis urges in “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.” Can we believe, as Giono’s tale gently affirms, that human beings can be “as effectual as God in tasks other than destruction”?
During his lifetime, Giono (1895-1970) was celebrated as one of the greatest writers in 20th-century French literature. The author of over 30 novels and numerous essays, stories, plays and film scripts, Giono was awarded, at age 58, the Prince Pierre Literary Prize for his collective work, much of which is still being discussed and published today.
Published in 1953, the children’s book offers a prescient parable for coming to grips with climate change.
Giono published “The Man Who Planted Trees,” which he later described as one of his proudest achievements, in the same year he won the Prince Pierre prize. At just under 4,000 words, it tells the story of a shepherd’s solitary efforts to reforest a desolate region in the foothills of the Alps during the first half of the 20th century. Like Giono’s own life, the shepherd’s story spans two world wars and the bloodiest half-century in human history.
More than 60 years after its publication, “The Man Who Planted Trees” can remind us of the hidden power of seed-planting, of patient cultivation when all around us seems barren. Like the Gospels, it reminds me that the humblest tasks, performed with love, increase a hundredfold, even when few others notice. It stirs in me an impossible hope, which is the task of imagination itself, the sacred calling of the poet and storyteller.
Who Would Dream of Such Magnificent Generosity?
The tale begins in 1913, when the narrator, a young man, sets out on a walking tour through “that ancient region where the Alps thrust down into Provence.” After some days, the man finds himself at the edge of an abandoned village, in a broad valley of “unparalleled desolation.” Some days later, finding no water and “nothing to give me hope of finding any,” the young man notices a small figure standing against the horizon. As he draws nearer, he encounters a solitary shepherd with his 30 sheep “lying about him on the baking earth.” The shepherd offers him water and rest, welcoming him to his cottage “in a fold of the plain.”
The next morning, his curiosity piqued, the sojourner accompanies the shepherd into the valley with his flock. As they reach the top of a ridge, the shepherd takes an iron rod, which he had been using as a walking stick, and begins to thrust it into the earth, “making a hole in which he planted an acorn.” The young man, taken aback, realizes that the shepherd “was planting oak trees.”
I asked him if the land belonged to him. He answered no. Did he know whose it was? He did not. He supposed it was community property, or perhaps belonged to people who cared nothing about it. He was not interested in finding out whose it was. He planted his hundred acorns with the greatest care.
The shepherd, having lost his only son and then his wife, has been planting trees for three years in the wilderness. “He had planted one hundred thousand. Of the hundred thousand, twenty thousand had sprouted. Of the twenty thousand he still expected to lose about half, to rodents or to the unpredictable designs of Providence. There remained ten thousand oak trees to grow where nothing had grown before.” The man’s name was Elzeard Bouffier.
The next day, the young traveler departs and for five years is engaged as a foot soldier in World War I. After the war ends, shell-shocked and longing “to breathe fresh air again,” the young man returns to the barren countryside. Nothing seems to have changed. Yet just as his memory of the oak-planting shepherd returns, he glimpses in the distance “a sort of greyish mist that covered the mountaintops like a carpet.”
The tale begins in 1913, when the narrator, a young man, sets out on a walking tour through “that ancient region where the Alps thrust down into Provence.”
Having imagined that Elzeard Bouffier must be dead—“especially since, at twenty, one regards men of fifty as old men with nothing left to do but die”—the man is astonished to find the shepherd alive and in excellent health. He has become a beekeeper; and the oaks of 1910, as well as “beech trees as high as my shoulder,” fill the valley as far as the eye could see. The narrator is struck with wonder, not only at the rebirth of the landscape but also, and no less, the disposition of its cultivator.
Creation seemed to come about in a sort of chain reaction. [Bouffier] did not worry about it; he was determinedly pursuing his task in all its simplicity; but as we went back toward the village I saw water flowing in brooks that had been dry since the memory of man. This was the most impressive result of chain reaction that I had seen....
The wind, too, scattered seeds. As the water reappeared, so there reappeared willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, flowers, and a certain purpose in being alive. But the transformation became part of the pattern without causing any astonishment.
Perhaps above all, the young man is overcome by the realization that Bouffier had worked “in total solitude: so total that, toward the end of his life, he lost the habit of speech.” Awestruck by this “land of Canaan” bursting forth in a region once devoid of hope, he concludes: “When you remembered that all this had sprung from the hands and soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understood that men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.”
As settlers return to the region, enchanted by the sudden growth of this “natural forest,” nobody knows whose patient labors had made it possible. “He was indetectable.” Who in the villages or in the government administration “could have dreamed of such perseverance in a magnificent generosity?”
An Obligation to Profess Hopefulness
For all the recognition he received during his lifetime, Giono believed he made his most valuable contribution when he wrote “The Man Who Planted Trees.” Refusing to take royalties for the story, he granted free use to anyone who wanted to distribute or publish it. In an interview with the American writer Norma Goodrich shortly before his death (published as an afterword to a 2007 edition of the story), he said, “It does not bring me in one single penny, and that is why it has accomplished what it was written for.”
Giono explained to Goodrich that his purpose in telling the story “was to make people love the tree, or more precisely, to make them love planting trees.” Within a few years the tale was translated into at least a dozen languages, and it has long since inspired reforestation efforts worldwide. Giono’s goal as an artist has been realized in ways he never could have imagined.
Giono’s goal as an artist has been realized in ways he never could have imagined.
In his interview with Goodrich, Giono also insisted that writers have “an obligation to profess hopefulness, in return for their right to live and write.” And he believed, as Goodrich emphasizes, that hopefulness springs above all from a poetic sensibility.
People have suffered so long inside walls that they have forgotten to be free, Giono thought. Human beings were not created to live forever in subways and tenements, for their feet long to stride through tall grass, or slide through running water. The poet’s mission is to remind us of beauty, of trees swaying in the breeze, or pines groaning under snow in the mountain passes, of wild white horses galloping across the surf. You know, Giono said to me, there are also times in life when a person has to rush off in pursuit of hopefulness.
It is interesting, as Goodrich notes, that Giono “termed his confidence in the future esperance, or hopefulness; not espoir, which is the masculine word for hope, but espérance, the feminine word designating the permanent state or condition of living one’s life in hopeful tranquility.” The tree-planter’s attunement to the earth beneath his feet is not episodic, abstract or utilitarian. It is sustained, sensate and “maternal,” responsive to the particular qualities and potentialities of the land that lay dormant within the soil, “just beneath the surface.”
To cultivate is to love. It is to linger with the other, over deep time and often in silence.
Though I am not a farmer, as a father and as a teacher I recognize the dynamic of attunement at play in the story. Whether with children or with the soil beneath our feet, to cultivate is to love. It is to linger with the other, over deep time and often in silence, so that I might listen and discern with all my senses the needs and wondrous potentialities of the one with whom I am in relationship. Is this not our deepest need and greatest deficit with respect to the earth?
Between What Is and What Is Yet Possible
In 1987, the Canadian animator Frederic Back gave “The Man Who Planted Trees” new life when he adapted the story into a short film that earned him an Academy Award. The film is truly breathtaking, employing an impressionistic, Monet-like animation the likes of which I have rarely seen. When I share the book and film with my students, they are mesmerized. And eventually, inevitably, they ask: Was Elzeard Bouffier a real person?
It also gives us a vision of what is yet possible when we set our minds and wills to the restoration of the Earth.
For many years, Giono enjoyed allowing people to believe it was so. Later he confirmed that the account is fictional, a kind of illuminated parable or allegory. But one may also ask, as I ask my students: Does the story’s fictional character make it any less true? While Americans may hear in Giono’s protagonist echoes of the real-life historical figure of Johnny Appleseed, the story, as Goodrich suggests, “calmly veers away from past and present time toward the future of newer and better generations.”
In other words, “The Man Who Planted Trees” offers us not only a vision of what is—the enduring beauty of meadows and mountain streams and undulating forests stretching out as far as the eye can see. It also gives us a vision of what is yet possible when we set our minds and wills to the restoration of the Earth, our common home, a task yet “worthy of God.” There is “a peace in being with” Elzeard Bouffier, the storyteller suggests, because the shepherd embodies a holistic and healing way of being in relationship with the land in the stream of time, a humble attunement to the restoration of “all things.” Thus he effects, sacramentally, as it were, what he patiently and methodically signifies: the miraculous possibilities of presence.
“The glory of God is the human being fully alive,” proclaimed St. Irenaeus. Dare we believe that human beings can be as effectual as God in tasks other than destruction? The birthing of hope in the face of the global environmental crisis depends on our lived response to that question.
As Pope Francis writes in “Laudato Si’,” “The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning (No. 84)”. To embrace the earth “as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale” (No. 9), is to begin to renew the face of the planet, one afflicted square mile at a time.
For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Jean Giono’s simple tale can awaken the artist, the poet, the storyteller and perhaps even the farmer in each of us. Like the parables of Jesus, the story belongs to everyone. So let us waste no more time finding out “whose it was,” as the narrator in Giono’s story asked about the land, when we lament our part in the suffering of the planet. The Earth is our common home, its suffering our common cause. Let us begin planting our hundred acorns with the greatest care.