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KNOWLEDGE: TALES 

The Man Who Planted Trees


The Man Who Planted Trees

About forty years ago, I went on a long hike, through hills absolutely unknown to tourists, in a very old region. At the time I undertook my long walk through this deserted region, nothing grew there, except wild lavender. It was a deserted land, barren and monotonous.

After three days' walking, I found myself in the most complete desolation. I camped out next to the skeleton of an abandoned village. I had used the last of my water the day before, and I needed to find more. Even though they were in ruins, those houses, all huddled together, looked like an old wasps' nest. I thought, there must have been a spring or well here once. Actually, there was one, but it was dry.

I had to move my camp. After five hours of walking, I still hadn't found water, and nothing gave me hope of finding any. Everywhere there was the same dryness, the same stiff, woody plants. Suddenly, I saw a small black silhouette in the distance. Whatever it was, I headed towards it. It was a shepherd. Thirty lambs or so lying down, resting near him on the scorching ground.

He gave me some water from his gourd and a little later he led me into his shepherd's cottage, tucked down in an undulation of the plateau. He drew his water – excellent water - from a very deep natural hole, next to the cottage.

This man spoke little. This is common among those who live alone, but he seemed sure of himself, and confident in his assurance.

His house was well organized, his dishes washed, his floor swept, his soup boiling over the fire. Then, I noticed he was also freshly shaved, all his buttons were solidly sewn, and his clothes were mended with such care as to make the patches invisible.

He shared his soup with me, and when, afterwards, I offered him my tobacco pouch, he told me he didn't smoke. His dog, as silent as he, was friendly without being fawning.

Immediately, it became implicit that I would pass the night there, the closest village was still more than a day and a half farther on. Furthermore, I understood perfectly well the character of the rare villages of that region. There were four or five of them dispersed far from one another on the flanks of the hills, at the very ends of roads passable by carriage. They were inhabited by woodcutters who made charcoal. Their living was poor. The families, pressed together in close quarters by a climate that is exceedingly harsh, struggled ever more selfishly against each other. Irrational ambition reached inordinate proportions in the continual desire for escape. There was competition over everything, from the sale of charcoal to the benches at church. On top of all that, there was the wind, also ceaseless, that irritates the nerves. There were epidemics of suicides and numerous cases of insanity, almost always murderous.

The shepherd, who did not smoke, took out a bag and poured out a pile of acorns on the table. He began to examine them one after another with a great deal of attention, separating the good ones from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I offered to help him, but he told me it was his own business. When he had, in the good pile, a fair number of acorns, he counted them out into packets of ten. In doing this he eliminated some more of the acorns, discarding the smaller ones and those that that showed even the slightest crack, for he examined them very closely. When he had before him one hundred perfect acorns he stopped, and we went to bed.

The company of this man brought me a feeling of peace. I asked him the next morning if I might stay the whole day with him. He found that perfectly natural. Or more exactly, he gave me the impression that nothing could disturb him. He let out his flock and took them to the pasture. Before leaving, he soaked in a bucket of water the little sack containing the acorns that he had so carefully chosen and counted.

I noticed that he carried, as a sort of walking stick, an iron rod as thick as his thumb, and about one and a half meters long. He left his dog in the charge of his flock and climbed up towards the spot where I was standing. He invited me to come along with him, if I had nothing better to do. He continued on another two hundred meters up the hill.

Having arrived at the place he had been heading for, he began to pound his iron rod into the ground, this made a hole in which he placed an acorn, whereupon he covered over the hole again. He was planting oak trees. I asked him if the land belonged to him. He answered no. Did he know whose land it was? He did not know. He supposed that it was communal land, or perhaps it belonged to someone who did not care about it. He himself did not care to know who the owners were. In this way he planted his one hundred acorns with great care.

At noon, after the meal, he started to select his seeds. I must have put enough insistence into my questions, because he answered them. For three years now he had been planting trees in this solitary way. He had planted one hundred thousand. Of these one hundred thousand, twenty thousand had come up. He counted on losing another half of them to rodents and to everything else that is unpredictable. That left ten thousand oaks that would grow in this place where before there was nothing.

At that moment, I began to wonder about his age. He was clearly more than fifty. Fifty-five, he told me. His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He had owned a farm in the plains, where he lived most of his life. He had lost his wife and his only son, and then he had retired into this solitude, where he took pleasure in living slowly, with his flock of sheep and his dog. He had concluded that this country was dying for lack of trees. Then, he added that, having nothing more important to do, he had decided to remedy the situation.

I told him that in a few years these ten thousand trees would be magnificent. He replied very simply that, if should God give him life, in thirty years he would have planted so many other trees that these ten thousand would be like a drop of water in the ocean.

He had also begun to study the propagation of beeches and he had near his house a nursery filled with seedlings grown from beechnuts. His little wards, which he had protected from his sheep by a screen fence, were growing beautifully. He was also considering birches for the valley bottoms where, he told me, moisture lay slumbering just a few meters beneath the surface of the soil.

We parted the next day.


The next year the war of 14 came, in which I was engaged for five years. I had forgotten the entire event. An infantryman could hardly think about trees.

With the war behind me, I found myself with a great desire to breathe a little pure air. Without any preconceived notion beyond that, I took again the road to that deserted country. The land had not changed, nonetheless, beyond that dead village I perceived in the distance a sort of gray fog that covered the hills like a carpet. I had been thinking about the shepherd, who planted trees. “ Ten thousand oaks“, I reflected, “must really take up a lot of space.”

I had seen too many people die during those five years not to be able to imagine easily the death of Elzéard Bouffier.

He was not dead. In fact, he was very spry. He had changed his job. He only had four sheep now, but to make up for this he had about a hundred beehives. He had gotten rid of the sheep, because they threatened his crop of trees. The war had not disturbed him at all. He had continued imperturbably with his planting.

The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old and were taller than us. The spectacle was impressive. As he was very quiet himself, we passed the whole day in silence, walking through his forest. There were three sections, eleven kilometers long overall and, at its widest point, three kilometers wide. I considered, that this had all sprung from the hands and from the soul of this one man - without technical aids. I was literally speechless.

The beeches reached up to my shoulders, extending as far as the eye could see. The oaks, which had passed the age where they were at the mercy of rodents to destroy the work that had been created, were now standing next to each other. The shepherd showed me admirable stands of birches that dated from five years ago. He had planted them in the valley bottoms where he had suspected, correctly, that there was water close to the surface. They were as tender as young girls, and very determined.

This creation had the air, moreover, of working by a chain reaction. He had not troubled about it, but he went on obstinately with his simple task. But, in going back down to the village, I saw water running in streams that, within living memory, had always been dry. It was the most striking revival, I have ever seen.

The wind had also been at work, dispersing certain seeds. As the water reappeared, so did willows too, rushes, meadows, gardens, flowers, and a certain reason to live.

But the transformation had taken place so slowly, that it had been taken for granted, without provoking surprise. The hunters, who climbed the hills in search of hares or wild boars, had noticed the spreading of the little trees, but they set it down to the natural spitefulness of the earth. That is why no one had touched the work of this man. Who among the villagers or the administrators would ever have suspected that anyone could show such obstinacy in carrying out this magnificent act of generosity?


Beginning in 1920 I never let more than a year go by without paying a visit to Elzéard Bouffier. I never saw him waver or doubt, though God alone knows, that his life was not easy. I have said nothing of his disappointments, but you can easily imagine, that he had to conquer adversity. One year, he had planted ten thousand maples, but all died. The next year, he gave up on maples and went back to beeches, which did even better, than the oaks.

To get a true idea of this exceptional character, one must not forget, that he worked in total solitude, so total that, towards the end of his life, he lost the habit of talking. Or maybe he just didn't see the need for it.

In 1933 he received the visit of an astonished forest ranger, who ordered him to cease building fires outdoors, for fear of endangering this natural forest. At the time of this incident, he was thinking of planting beeches at a spot twelve kilometers from his house. To avoid the coming and going, because at the time he was seventy-five years old, he planned to build a cabin of stone out where he was doing his planting. This he did the next year.

In 1935, a veritable administrative delegation went to examine this natural forest. It was decided to do something, but luckily nothing was done, except for one truly useful thing: placing the forest under the protection of the State and forbidding anyone from coming there to make charcoal. For it was impossible not to be taken with the beauty of these young trees in full health.

I had a friend among the chief foresters who were with the delegation. I explained the mystery to him. We went off together to look for Elzéard Bouffier. We found him hard at work, twenty kilometers away from the place where the inspection had taken place.

The hillside whence we had come was covered with trees six or seven meters high. I remembered the look of the place in 1913: a desert... But Elzéard was still very spry and refreshed, as before. The peaceful and steady labor, the vibrant highland air, his frugality, and above all, the serenity of his soul, had given the old man a kind of solemn good health.

Before leaving, my friend made a simple suggestion concerning certain species of trees to which the terrain seemed to be particularly well suited. He was not insistent. “For a very good reason,” he said afterwards. “This fellow knows a lot more about this sort of thing than I do.” After another hour of our walking, he added: “He knows a lot more about this sort of things than anybody and he has found a jolly good way of being happy!”

It was thanks to the efforts of this chief forester, that the forest was protected, and with it, the happiness of this man. He designated three forest rangers for its protection, and terrorized them to such an extent that they remained indifferent to any jugs of wine that the woodcutters might offer as bribes.

The forest did not run any grave risks except during the war of 1939. Then, automobiles were being run on wood alcohol, and there was never enough wood. They began to cut some stands of the oaks of 1910. But the trees stood so far from any useful road, that the enterprise turned out to be bad from a financial point of view, and was soon abandoned. But the shepherd never knew anything about it. He was thirty kilometers away, peacefully continuing his task, as untroubled by the war of 39 as he had been of the war of 14.


I saw Elzéard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945. He was then eighty-seven years old. I had once more set off along my trail through the wilderness, but now, there was a motor coach running there. I set down, to this means of transportation, the fact, that I no longer recognized the landmarks, I knew from my earlier visits. It also seemed that the route was taking me through entirely new places. I had to ask the name of a village to be sure, that I was indeed passing through that same region, once so ruined and desolated.

In 1913, this hamlet of ten or twelve houses had had three inhabitants. They were savages, hating each other, and earning their living by trapping. The nettles devoured the abandoned houses that surrounded them.

All of that had changed, even the air itself. Instead of the dry, brutal gusts, a gentle breeze whispered to me, bearing sweet perfumes. A sound like running water came from the heights above. It was the sound of the wind in the trees. And most astonishing of all, I heard the sound of real water running into a pool. I saw that they had built a fountain, which was full of water, and what touched me most, next to it they had planted a lime-tree that must be at least four years old, already grown thick, an incontestable symbol of resurrection.

The hamlet now counted twenty-eight inhabitants, including four young couples. The new houses, freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens that bore, mixed in with each other but still carefully laid out, vegetables and flowers, cabbages and rosebushes, leeks and rabbit flowers, celery and anemones. It was now a place where anyone would be glad to live.

From there I continued on foot. On the lower flanks of the mountain, I saw small fields of barley and rye, in the bottoms of the narrow valleys, meadow lands were just turning green.

The old springs, fed by rain and snow, which are now retained by the forests, have once again begun to flow. The brooks have been channelled. Beside each farm, amid groves of maples, the pools of fountains are bordered by carpets of fresh mint. Little by little, the villages have been rebuilt. People had come from the plains, where land is expensive, bringing with them youth, movement, and spirit of adventure. Walking along the roads you will meet men and women in full health, and smiling boys and girls. More than ten thousand people owed their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier.

When I consider that a single man, relying only on his own simple physical and moral resources, was able to transform a desert into this land of Canaan, I am convinced that despite everything, the human condition is truly admirable. But when I take into account the constancy, the greatness of soul, and the selfless dedication that was needed to bring about this transformation, I am filled with an immense respect for this old, uncultured peasant.

From the nouvelle written by Jean Giono

French writer Jean Giono achieved by his book a wonderful result; hundreds of thousands hectares of land were forested and his nouvelle inspired many people up to the present days to plant trees, and not only that. His dream, of planting trees, strongly influenced millions of readers around the world, changed their relationship with nature and made their hearts believe in the strength of spirit.


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