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The Man Who Planted Trees: New Transcription

October 5, 2015
Experiential EducationFilms

This animated adaptation of my favorite short reading, “The Man Who Planted Trees” by Jean Giono, won an academy award in 1987. In my opinion, the translation is the best out there: similar to the most common one, but more accessible in its English. A transcript wasn’t available online, so this morning, I transcribed it to include in my readings packet for the field. I hope you enjoy it!

Many years ago, I set out on a walking tour high in the Alps, a region quite unknown to travelers where ancient mountains thrust down into Provence. The trek began on barren moors twelve or thirteen hundred meters above sea level through land that was bleak and monotonous. Nothing grew there but wild lavender. My route led across the region at its widest point, and after hiking for three days, I found myself in a wasteland 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 ruins reminding me of an old wasps nest, made me think that once there must have been a fountain, 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 highlands blew a fierce, insufferable wind. Growling through the skeletons 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 course weeds.

In the distance, something caught my eye: a thin, dark shape that I took for a tree stump. But just in case, I walked towards it. It was a shepherd. And beside him, resting on the barren ground, lay about thirty sheep. He let me drink from his gourd, and presently, he led me to his sheep fold in a hollow in the plain. He drew water – and very excellent water it was too – from a very deep natural well over which he had rigged 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 showed how his own labor had repaired the ruin it had once been. Its roof was solid and strong, and the wind on its tiles sounded like the sea upon the seashore. Inside, it was neat and tidy: dishes washed, floor swept, shotgun oiled, his soup simmered over the fire. And I noticed that he was freshly shaved, that all his buttons were firmly sewed on, and that all his clothes were darned with that meticulous care that makes the mend invisible.

He shared his soup with me. When I offered him my tobacco pipe, he told me that he did not smoke. The dog, silent like his master, was friendly without fawning. It had been agreed that I would spend the night. The nearest village was still almost two day’s 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 a car track among copses of white oaks. They were inhabited by charcoal burners. The living was poor, and families huddled 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.

Their constant longing to escape became a crazy ambition. Endlessly, the men carted their charcoal to town then returned home. Even the most stable characters crack under the constant grind. The woman seethed with resentment and there was rivalry in everything: the sale of charcoal and the church pew. There were rivals in virtue and rivals in vice and the battle royal between virtue and vice raged incessantly. And always, there was the wind, the ever-present wind constantly grating on the nerves. There were epidemics of suicide and many cases of madness, nearly always ending in murder.

The shepherd who did not smoke went to fetch a little sack 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 discard the smaller ones or those that were cracked, for now, he was examining them very very closely. When finally there lay 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. The day of rest was not absolutely necessary, but I was intrigued, and I wanted to learn more about him.

He let the sheep out of the pen and led them to their grazing. Before he went, he took the little bag of carefully chosen acorns and put them into a pail of water to soak. I noticed that for a walking staff, he carried an iron rod about as thick as my thumb and as high 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 began 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 farther on to the top of the hill.

When we reached his destination, he began to drive his iron staff 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. And so with infinite care, he planted his hundred acorns. After the midday meal, he began to sort out more of his acorns. I suppose 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 one hundred thousand. Of the hundred thousand, twenty thousand 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 ten thousand oaks to grow on this tract of land where before, there was nothing.

It was then that I wondered 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 his solitude where he was content 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 the state of affairs.

I was young and only thought of the future as it affected me and my happiness. So I told him that in thirty years, those ten thousand oaks would be magnificent. He answered quite simply that if god granted him life, in thirty years, he would have planted so many more that these ten thousand would be like a drop of water in the sea.

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

The next day, we parted.

The following year came the first world war, in which I was engaged for five years. An infantryman was hardly likely to have trees on his mind.

After demobilization, 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 grayish mist that lay on the hilltops like a carpet. The shepherd who planted trees had been in my mind since the day before. “Ten thousand oak trees,” I thought to myself, “really need a lot of space.” I had seen so many people die in those five years, it was easy to imagine that Elzéard Bouffier, too, was dead. Especially since at twenty, we think of men of fifty as ancient with nothing left to do but die.

He was not dead. He had changed his occupation. He had only four sheep left, but now, he had over a hundred hives of bees. He had given up sheep because they threatened his young trees. The 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 struck down. And as he never said a word, we spent the whole day in silence walking through his forest. It was in three sections and measured eleven kilometers long and three kilometers 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 men could be as effective as god in tasks other than destruction.

He had followed his dream, and beech trees as high as my shoulder and stretching as far as the eye could see were witness to it. The oaks were strong and past being at the mercy of rodents. As for providence, she would have needed a cyclone to destroy this creation of man.

He showed me handsome groves of five-year-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, yet 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 had ever seen. Long ago, these brooks had been full of water. Among the miserable villages I mentioned before, some were built on sites of ancient Roman villages, and archeologists, digging in the ruins, had found fishhooks, 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 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 had put it down to some caprice of nature. That is why no one had meddled with the work of the shepherd; if they had 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 payed 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. I never tried to imagine his frustrations, but to achieve such an end, he much have had to overcome many obstacles. For such passion to succeed, he must surely have fought and conquered despair. We must remember that this exceptional man had worked in utter solitude, solitude to complete that towards the end of his life, he lost the habit of speech. Or, perhaps, he saw no need for it.

In 1933, he was visited by an astonished forester who notified him of an order that lighting fires outdoors was forbidden for fear of endangering this natural forest. It was the first time, the forester told him naively, that he had ever seen a forest grow of its own accord. In 1935, a whole delegation from the authorities arrived to look at the natural forest. There was a high-ranking official from the forestry department, an elected member of parliament, technical experts. And there was a great deal of talk. It was decided something must be done. Fortunately, nobody did anything except for the one good thing: the forest was placed under government protection and charcoal burning was prohibited. For it was really quite impossible not to be enchanted by the beauty of these young healthy trees, and they had even managed to cast their spell over the member of parliament.

One of the senior foresters in the delegation was a friend of mine, and I explained the mystery to him. The following week, we both set out to find Elzéard Bouffier. He was hard at work about twenty kilometers from where the official inspection had taken place. I was right about my friend the forester; he was able to appreciate all he saw. I offered the eggs I had brought as a present. We all shared our lunch and spent several hours in silent contemplation of the landscape.

The slopes we had climbed on our way up were covered with tall trees four times our own height. I remembered how it had looked in 1913: desolate. But quiet, regular work, brisk mountain air, the simple life, and above all, peace of mind, had endowed this old man with almost awe-inspiring health. He was one of god’s athletes. I wondered how many more hectare he would cover with trees. Before we took our leave, my friend made one small suggestion about the kinds of tree which seemed to suit the soil here. He did not press the point, “for the simple reason,” he told me afterwards, “that this man knows more about it than I do.” The idea must have been turning over in his mind, for after we had walked for an hour he added, “he knows more about it than anyone else in the world. He’s found a perfect way to be happy.” Thanks to this forester, not only the forest, but the happiness of Elzéard Bouffier were protected.

The only serious danger to his work occurred during the second world war: cars being powered by wood-burning generators. There was never enough wood. So, cutting was begun among the oaks of 1910, but they were so far from transportation routes that the whole enterprise proved financially unsound. It was abandoned.

The shepherd knew nothing of all this. He was thirty kilometers away, quietly going about his business, ignoring the war of ’39 just as he had ignored it in 1914. I saw Elzéard Bouffier for the last time in June 1945. He was then eighty-seven. Again I had set out on the road to those barren moors, but now, in spite of the dislocation left behind by the war, there was a bus that ran from the Durance valley up into the mountains. I decided it must be because of this relatively speedy means of transport that I could not recognize the places where my walks used to lead me. It took the name of a village to reassure me that I really was in that region that had once been desolate and abandoned.

The bus dropped me at Vergon. In 1913, this hamlet of no more than a dozen houses had three inhabitants: wild creatures who hated each other who set snares to make a living. They were people without hope. Now everything was different, even the air itself. Instead of the harsh, dry winds of the past, there was a gentle breeze full of fragrance. From the mountaintops came a sound like rushing water. It was the wind rustling through the forest. And then, even more astonishing, I heard another sound of water. I saw that they had built a fountain that was splashing merrily. And beside it, what I found most touching, someone had planted a linden tree: the perfect symbol of rebirth. Moreover, Vergon showed signs of the kind of labor that only hope can inspire. So hope had been restored.

Ruins had been cleared, and crumbling walls torn down. The new houses, freshly rough-cast, stood in kitchen gardens where flowers and vegetables grew in orderly confusion. Roses and cabbages, snapdragons and leeks, celery and anemones. It had become a place where one would want to live.

From this point, I continued on foot. The war had not been over long enough for life to reach full bloom, but Lazarus had emerged from the tomb. On the lower slopes of the mountain, I could see small fields of young barley and rye, and down in the narrow valleys, the meadows were green.

It has taken only eight years since then for the whole countryside to glow with health and prosperity. Where I had seen ruins in 1913, there now stand clean, freshly plastered farmhouses: evidence of happy, comfortable lives. Dry springs fed by snows and rains now conserved by the forest have begun to flow again. In the maple groves, each farm has its fountain, brimming over onto carpets of fresh mint.

Bit by bit, the villages have been rebuilt. People have come to settle from down in the plains where land is expensive. They have brought youth, life, and the spirit of adventure. On the roads, one meets people glowing with health, and boys and girls laughing as they enjoy their rustic pleasures.

Counting those who lived here before, quite changed by their light and gentle surroundings, and including the newcomers, more than ten thousand people owe their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier.

When I think that one man, one body, and one spirit was enough to turn a desert into the land of Canaan, I find after all that a man’s destiny can be truly wonderful. But when I consider the passionate determination, the unfailing generosity of spirit it took to achieve this end, I am filled with admiration for this old, unlearned peasant who was able to complete a task worthy of god.

Elzéard Bouffier died peacefully in Banon in 1947.

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