I wonder what it was that made Jean Giono write what I have read is perhaps his best-known work, The Man Who Planted Trees (Homme qui plantait des Arbes)? It is a slender book, a very short story, a fable actually. It was published in the mid-1950s after he lived through two world wars and fought in one. It was his experience fighting in WWI that turned him into a lifelong pacifist, so perhaps living through the horrors of war is more than enough. The Man Who Planted Trees was my first proper read of 2016 and it is an inspiring story and the perfect way to begin a new year, one I want to be filled with hope and light (well, maybe not so much light during the dark, cold days of January). It will not be returned to my bookcase but will be left out for the duration for me to look at and be reminded that simplicity in living and in thinking, mindfulness (one of my themes at the moment at least in my inner conscience) is the best way to approach the world these days.
This is not my first run in with Jean Giono. I first read To the Slaughterhouse nearly four years ago. It is an absolutely harrowing novel about WWI and one you won't soon forget if you read it, and like The Man Who Planted Trees you should read it. The visuals in his war novel are striking and not a little disturbing, but so are they in this thin little book. This later work is tempered by the beauty of nature rather than its destruction, so really there is a balance and surely that must have been what he was looking for after his earlier life experiences.
The Man Who Planted Trees is a very simple story but one with a powerful message. It had to be well ahead of its time and fits nicely with contemporary nature literature and it has inspired people and movements, and I defy anyone to read it and not want to go out and plant a tree the minute they turn that last page. It just takes one. One person doing something simple and in anonymity can move the world. An action might seem small and unimportant yet over time and incrementally it can have impact on a whole environment.
This is the story of Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd living a solitary life, but a life that he is comfortable with. He once had a son and a wife, but now both are gone and so he lives with his lambs and his dog in his simple little cottage. "It was his opinion that this land was dying for lack of trees." And so every day he gathers acorns and sorts out the best of the bunch and every day he plants one hundred acorns. Some will grow and some will not. Some take root and some will not make it. But this simple little act over time changes the landscape from one barren and ugly to a lush forest.
The story is narrated by a young man out on a walking tour in Provence who happens upon Elzéard who is taken with the man's diligence and asks to spend some time with him. Nothing grew in these fields so close to the Alps but wild lavender. The land was not cared for and was all but barren--of plant life or of people. When the man leaves the war of 1914 intervenes and it is many years before he returns. In a decade, in those years that passed from that first glimpse, those acorns sprouted and are now bigger than either men.
"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."
Not only have the trees taken hold, but the countryside has been transformed. Later villages sprout up in the beauty of a forest. So many years later when Elzéard is truly an old man, still happy in his solitude with even fewer words to share, a delegation of government workers come to study this "natural forest" and plan how best to care for it and protect. The trees, of course, are the handiwork of our shepherd, one man, who was the impetus to creating something beautiful and bigger than all with his one small action.
A truly hopeful and inspiring story. My edition of the book includes gorgeous wood engravings by Michael McCurdy as well as an introduction by Wangari Maathia, and an afterword by Andy Lipkis and further information on how any person can do one small thing, plant just one tree, that will add up to a significant change.
"Trees and forests, both urban and rural, are models of sustainability. They help reduce air pollution and global warming fases; water pollution, drought, and flooding; energy use through conservation; and waste, while improving human physical and psychological health and the economy. Through careful and well-planned planting and restoration, it is possible to establish urban and rural forests that cost-effectively replace and enhance these natural life-support services, which are being lost to development and sprawl."
Many thanks to my friend Cath for sending this inspirational tale my way. A wonderful read to start a new year off with.