1st March. St David’s Day and the daffodils are out, trumpeters of spring. They herald all the yellows that weave their way through the calendar, lighting the flame to pull us through winter and out into the sun – from the early celandines, to cowslips and marsh marigolds, yellow iris, creeping Jenny, tormentil and the unsung hero of medicinal cleansers – our humble dandelion. Running close along the ground in a lick of gold fire later in the spring comes kidney vetch and then, of course, brash and blousy, the gorse bursts out centre stage, wafting round its thick exotic scent.
This is the seedling season. Sap is rising, birds are flirting, life is on the move. I noted, with a touch of irony this morning, that apparently it’s not just the wildlife that is spreading itself about. Sorting through some bookshelves, I discovered I have not one, but three volumes of Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees. I can justify the first two as they are different editions – one published by Peter Owen illustrated by Michael McCurdy and the other with wood engravings by Harry Brockway and an afterword by the author’s daughter, Aline Giono, published by The Harvill Press in 1996 and translated by Barbara Bray. My acquisition of the third, an identical copy of the Harvill edition, baffles me, its irony enhanced by the fact that the story is a parable on the nature of possession and humility. I was drawn to the Harvill edition today, to read what Giono’s daughter had to say about her father’s conception of the book.
Its background is as intriguing as the tale itself. In 1953, Giono was commissioned by the American Reader’s Digest to write a piece on ‘The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met’. And so the character of Elzéard Bouffier emerged, a shepherd living a simple life in the barren upland landscape where the Alps extend into Provence. Having lost his son and his wife, Bouffier lives alone, largely in silence, tending his sheep and keeping a tidy house. We meet him through the voice of the narrator who travels to the region in June 1913, discovering a place of arid desolation and ‘monotonous moorland’ where only wild lavender grows and the incessant raging wind drives some of its few bickering inhabitants either to madness or desperate acts of violence. Amidst all of this, he finds Bouffier seemingly at peace, content with his silence and solitude. He is invited to stay with the shepherd overnight and watches him carefully preparing acorns after supper, checking them over meticulously and counting out one hundred to plant individually the following day, whilst tending his flock. He repeats the same routine every day.
What Bouffier does, without any thought of gain or reward for himself, is re-forest an entire region by this simple method over several decades, starting with oaks but diversifying and experimenting with birch, maple and beech as time goes on. Fascinated by the shepherd, the narrator returns to the area every year without fail from 1920 onwards. During the darkest years of the violence and mass destruction of two world wars, the shepherd continues imperturbably with his tree planting. The forest is so successful, the region turns into a fertile, flourishing landscape with flowing streams and new communities of people thriving and living in harmony with each other. It is even visited by a government delegation, including a senior official from the Forestry Commission who comes, bemused, to inspect the ‘natural’ phenomenon and overwhelmed by the beauty of the healthy trees, puts it under State protection.
The last time the narrator sees Bouffier, then aged eighty-seven, is in June 1945 when he takes his usual journey into the wilds and alights from the bus in the unrecognisable scenery of Vergons, where even the air had changed. In 1913, this small hamlet was home to only three rough and antisocial inhabitants with nothing to hope for but death: ‘Not a situation propitious to virtue.’ Now, a gently scented breeze replaced arid gusts of wind, and the sound of flowing water was astonishing, a sign that Bouffier’s acorns had planted many different seeds of hope. As the narrator observes, ‘I saw that the people in the village had built a fountain: it was gushing forth in abundance, and – this was what moved me most – beside it they had planted a lime tree which must have been about four years old. It was already quite sturdy – an indisputable symbol of resurrection.’
Giono perceives Bouffier’s achievement through his magnanimity, constancy and perseverance as ‘an act worthy of God’. It was not a work fuelled by ambition and there was no desire for acquisition or recognition. After all, many of the trees would not grow to maturity in his lifetime. He simply did what he did, selflessly and as a result, the tale concludes, ‘If you include both the former population, unrecognisable since their life became more agreeable, and the newcomers, more than ten thousand people must owe their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier.’
Originally delighted with the piece, the Reader’s Digest wanted to ensure they were in full possession of the facts about this extraordinary person prior to publication. They checked out some of the detail, such as information on the hospice at Banon where Giono records his hero Bouffier dying peacefully in 1947. They were outraged to discover that there was no record of him there, that Bouffier was fictional and, calling Giono an impostor, rejected the piece. Giono’s daughter recalls her father’s response as one of amusement rather than indignation: ’I well remember, his chief reaction was surprise that there should be people stupid enough to ask a writer – a professional inventor – who was the most remarkable person he had ever met, and not realise that this person was bound to emerge from his imagination.’
In fairness, the publication had apparently wanted an account of an actual person, but Giono presented them with a character who would have been the most remarkable. Either way, it is hard to miss the irony that such a potent allegorical tale set against the backdrop of two world wars and warning against the dangers of human greed and acquisitiveness, was rejected because the facts could not be ‘owned’. Someone, somewhere, had clearly missed the point. Luckily, others did not and received it eagerly. In her afterword written in 1975, Aline Giono notes that the story, published under various titles (including The Man who Planted Hope and Reaped Happiness) had already been translated into twelve different languages; whilst its title changed over the years, its warm reception has been constant and it continues to inspire people throughout the world. I have passed copies of it on to friends and family and the extra copy which seemed to appear from nowhere today will find a new home tomorrow.
Above all, Bouffier is a symbol of hope for the human potential to coexist in harmony with nature; he is also an embodiment of the power of silence and solitude to nurture the creative spirit, a spirit far greater than our capacity for destruction. Through his extraordinary character, Giono concludes optimistically, ‘I can’t help feeling the human condition in general is admirable, in spite of everything.’ It is an optimism we might welcome just as keenly today in our current climate of uncertainty. Just as positive thinking alone might not save the world, all-pervasive negativity only serves to deepen the malaise and our sense of impotence to bring about change. On the other hand, if we nurture Bouffier’s seeds of hope, we might remember the old wisdom of taking one step at a time, just as the villagers learned to plant the lime tree. We can bring about positive changes in our lives, whoever we are, however small or insignificant those changes might appear to be. There is nothing wrong, or naïve about a healthy dose of positivity to encourage us along the way. On the back of the Harvill edition, Giono’s story is described as ‘a hymn to creation and a purveyor of confidence in man’s ability to change his – indeed the world’s – lot’. Quite right.
Jean Giono, The Man Who Planted Trees, illustrated by Harry Brockway, translated by Barbara Bray, with an afterword by Aline Giono. (The Harvill Press, 1996)
by Jane MacNamee
Jane MacNamee lives on the coast in Aberystwyth, west Wales. She writes essays on nature, travel and food (with a special interest in local and seasonal produce), and has contributed to New Welsh Review, Resurgence & Ecologist, BBC CountryFile, BBC History, Landscape magazine, BEER (magazine for the Campaign for Real Ale) and The Rough Guide to Accessible Britain. She is also a freelance editor specialising in non-fiction. www.jmeditorialservices.co.uk