In February 1953, one of the most prominent French authors of the past century, Jean Giono, was writing an allegorical tale. The story would soon after become known to the world as “The Man Who Planted Trees”. Giono was commissioned to write it by an American magazine, which had asked him to write a short story about “an unforgettable character”.
From the very first lines of the short story, we are introduced to the pensive, solitary and definitely unforgettable character of Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd who has taken it upon himself to reforest a barren, desert, colourless landscape, for no other purpose than to bring life to “a land that is dying for want of trees”.
The story is recalled and recounted by an unnamed man who met Bouffier by chance, while the man was wandering, in France, amidst “that ancient region where the Alps thrust down into Provence”. At the time of their encounter, in 1913, “nothing grew there but wild lavender”.
Having been implicitly offered a much needed hospitality, the unnamed man acquaints with Bouffier through his actions, rather than his words, the former bearing such potentiality to shadow the power of the latter. Words are scarcely used by Bouffier, if not at all, as if, unlike seeds, they were unable to disclose anything mightier than the wavering appearance of their wavering weight.
During their first encounter, the man learns that Bouffier, in the previous three years, having lost his wife and son, and having “no very pressing business of his own”, has single-handedly planted a hundred thousand acorns. From these acorns, ten thousand oak trees have already sprouted.
“I told him that in thirty years his 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 ocean”.
Life was granted to Bouffier for another 34 years. During that period, the two characters meet on several occasions. Time after time, to the unnamed man’s admiring astonishment, in what had been that land of “unparalleled desolation”, life, like a reluctant rose bud, was finally forced, by the predicaments of its blind will, to blossom and flourish in all its abundance and splendour.
Bouffier “had continued his work, peacefully ignoring the war of ‘39, as he had that of ‘14”.
“When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable”, the tale concludes. For this particular tale, Giono always declined payment or royalties.
In 1987, 34 years after the story was written, very much like the 34 years in which the story takes place, the celebrated Canadian artist, pioneering environmental activist and animation filmmaker Frédéric Back gave Giono’s short story a visual embodiment, resulting in the homonymous thirty-minute short film for which Back one his second Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, after “Crac!”(1981).
The website devoted to Back’s work, as a man, artist and activist, reports that winning the Oscar for “Crac!” eventually allowed Back, after a lengthy and troublesome productional process, to bring “The man who planted trees” to the screen, along with its light-bearing philosophical, environmental and universal message.
“The seeds that the shepherd plants are the symbol of all our actions, good and bad, which have far-reaching consequences we can scarcely imagine. It is up to us to think and act in accordance with our hopes for the future, and, if possible, to leave behind us a world more beautiful and promising than the one we inherited”.
The artistic world we inherited from Back, and from his animated illustrations in “The man who planted trees” is one of delicate pastel textures, which allude to a solemn and sweet frugality, and convey an austere yet luxurious beauty, much like that of nature itself. And, much like the elements of nature itself, Back’s illustrations are born, grow and dissolve intertwined in each other’s separation, for the sake of each other’s combination, and renovation.
In the French version of the animated short film, the story is narrated by legendary French actor Philippe Noiret. In the English one, the narrator’s voice is that of the much acclaimed Canadian theatre, film and television actor Christopher Plummer.
In both versions the voice appears to be spontaneously touching, charismatic and convincing, yet the most convincing of all was maybe the silent, written voice of the original narrator. So convincing, in fact, that many, throughout the years, have believed in Bouffier’s authenticity.
To this erroneous belief, fueled, on the other hand, by Giono himself, the latter put an end in a letter to the Water and Forest manager of Digne, in 1957:
“Dear Sir, I am sorry to disappoint you, but Elzeard Bouffier is an invented character. The aim was to encourage love for trees, or, more exactly, to stir the love to plant trees (which has always been one of my dearest ideas). (…)It is one of the texts of which I am the proudest. It does not bring me one cent and that is why it is doing the very thing for which it was written(…)”.
Bouffier’s character may have been invented, yet the sweat of his hands has perspired on this earth through the selfless actions of many others, whose efforts were all but fictional.
Back himself was a man who planted trees. In 1987, as he states in his autobiography, he planted a forest in Huberdeau, Canada, and named it after Giono. But he was far from being the only one. Many men and women have been admirable and happened to be admirable men and women who planted trees. Here are just a few of their names.
Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer from Burkina Faso, revived a land plagued by desertification and drought by using a traditional farming technique called Zaï. His story is featured in Mark Dodd’s “The Man Who Stopped the Desert”(2010).
Jadev Payeng, an Indian environmental activist, single-handedly dedicated, starting from the age of 16, 4 decades to the planting of trees in Majuli, a river island in the Brahmaputra River – the largest river island in the world – which, since 1917, has lost more than half its landmass to erosion. Payeng’s forest is now larger than Central Park. His story is featured in William Douglas McMaster’s documentary “Forest Man” (2013).
Jia Haixia and Jia Wenqi have been reforesting a bare river bank in northeastern China for the past 15 years. The two are disabled, being the former blind and the latter a double arm amputee. “I am his hands, he is my eyes”, Haixia has stated. “We are good partners”.
Kenyan Professor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai established, in 1977, the Green Belt Movement, a non-governmental organization whose aim, among other things, is to combat deforestation and soil erosion, to which we owe, among other things, the planting of 51 million trees so far.
Lastly, in 2009, ECOSIA, a web search engine whose current focus is reforestation, was launched. The company claims to donate 80% of its surplus income to this particular issue, with more than 12 million trees planted in this particular moment in time. It takes an average of 45 searches to plant one tree.
I’ve been typing these words whilst sitting under the ancient shades of a pine forest in Bisti, the eastern edge of the Greek port town of Ermioni. The entrancing, timeless song of the cicadas seems undisturbed by the disastrous wildfires that have elsewhere devastated, once again, this beautiful country, as they have elsewhere in Europe and the rest of the world this summer.
With a certain sorrowful gratitude for the trees that still encircle one here, amidst the loss of so many others, and the thought of many to sprout still, some words of the French saint Bernard of Clairvaux spring to my mind with renovated clarity and truthfulness: “You will find more lessons in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you what no master can”.