Man Who Planted
For a human
character to reveal truly exceptional qualities,
one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over
many years. If this performance is devoid of all egoism,
if its guiding motive is unparalleled generosity,
if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and
that, in addition, it
has its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.
forty years ago I was taking a long trip on foot over mountain heights quite
unknown to tourists in that region where the Alps thrust down into Provence.
Nothing grew there but wild lavender. I was crossing the area at its widest point and, after three days’
walking, found myself in the midst of unparalleled desolation.
I camped near the vestiges of an abandoned village.
I had run out of water the day before and had to find some.
These clustered houses, although in ruins, like an old wasps’ nest,
suggested that there must once have been a spring or well here.
There was, indeed, a spring, but it was dry.
The five or six houses, roofless, gnawed by wind and rain, the tiny
chapel with its crumbling steeple, stood about like the houses and chapels in
living villages, but all life had vanished.
five hours’ walking I had still not found water and there was nothing to give
me any hope of finding any. All
about me was the same dryness, the same coarse grasses.
I thought I glimpsed in the distance a small black silhouette, upright,
and took it for the trunk of a solitary tree.
In any case, I started towards it. It
was a shepherd. Thirty sheep lying about him on the baking earth. He gave me
a drink from his water-gourd and, a little later, took me to his cottage in a
fold of the plain. He drew his
water – excellent water – from a very deep natural well above which he had
constructed a primitive winch.
man spoke little. This is the way
of those who live alone, but one felt that he was sure of himself, and confident
in his assurance. That was
unexpected in this barren country. He
lived, not in a cabin, but in a real house built of stone that bore plain
evidence of how his own efforts had reclaimed the ruin he had found there on his
arrival. His roof was strong and
sound, the wind on the tiles made the sound of the sea upon its shores.
was understood from the first that I should spend the night there, the nearest
village was still more than a day and a half away. And besides, I was perfectly familiar with the nature of the
rare village in that region. There
were four or five of them scattered well apart from each other on these mountain
slopes, among white oak thickets, at the extreme edge of wagon roads.
They were inhabited by charcoal-burners and the living was bad.
Families, crowded together in a climate that is exceedingly harsh, both
in winter and in summer, found no escape from the unceasing conflict of
was rivalry in everything, over the price of charcoal as over a pew in the
church. And over all there was the
wind, also ceaseless, to rasp upon the nerves.
shepherd went to fetch a small sack and poured out a heap of acorns on the
table. He began to inspect them,
one by one, with great concentration, separating the good from the bad.
I smoked my pipe. I did offer to help him.
He told me that it was his job. And
in fact, seeing the care he devoted to the task, I did not insist.
That was the whole of our conversation.
When he had set aside a large enough pile of good acorns he counted them
out by tens, meanwhile eliminating the small ones or those which were slightly
cracked, for now he examined them more closely.
When he had thus selected one hundred perfect acorns he stopped and went
was peace in being with this man. He found it quite natural – or, to be more exact, he gave
me the impression that nothing could startle him.
The rest was not absolutely necessary, but I was interested and wished to
know more about him. He opened the
pen and led his flock to pasture. Before
leaving, he plunged his sack of carefully selected and counted acorns into a
pail of water.
noticed that he carried for a stick an iron rod as thick as my thumb and about a
yard and a half long. Resting
myself by walking I followed a path parallel to his.
His pasture was in a valley. He
left the little flock in charge of the dog, and climbed towards where I stood.
I was afraid that he was about to rebuke me for my indiscretion, but it
was not that at all; this was the way he was going, and he invited me to go along
if I had nothing better to do. He
climbed to the top of the ridge about a hundred yards away.
he began thrusting his iron rod into the earth, making a hole in which he
planted an acorn then he refilled the hole.
He was planting oak trees. I
asked him if the land belonged to him. He
answered no. Did he know whose it
was? He did not.
He supposed it was community property, or perhaps belonged to people who
cared nothing about it. He was not
interested in finding out whose it was. He
planted his hundred acorns with the greatest care.
After the midday meal he resumed his planting.
I suppose I must have been fairly insistent in my questioning, for he
answered me. For three years he had
been planting trees in this wilderness. He
had planted 100,000. Of these,
20,000 had sprouted. Of the 20,000
he still expected to lose about half to rodents or to the unpredictable designs
of Providence. There remained
10,000 oak trees to grow where nothing had grown before.
was when I began to wonder about the age of this man. He was obviously over fifty.
Fifty-five, he told me. His
name was Elzeard Bouffier. He had
once had a farm in the lowlands. There
he had his life. He had lost his
only son, then his wife. He had
withdrawn into this solitude, where his pleasure was to live leisurely with his
lambs and his dog. It was his
opinion that this land was dying for want of trees.
He added that, having no very pressing business of his own, he had
resolved to remedy this state of affairs.
I was at that time, in spite of my youth, leading a solitary life, I understood
how to deal with solitary spirits. But
my very youth forced me to consider the future in relation to myself and to a
certain quest for happiness. I told
him that in thirty years his 10,000 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 those 10,000 would be like a drop of water
in the ocean.
he was now studying the reproduction of beech trees and had a nursery of
seedlings grown from beechnuts near his cottage. The seedlings, which he protected from his sheep with a wire
fence, were very beautiful. He was
also considering birches for the valleys where, he told me, there was a certain
amount of moisture a few yards below the surface of the soil.
next day we parted.
following year came the War of 1914, in which I was involved for the next five
years. An infantryman hardly had
time for reflecting upon trees. To
tell the truth, the thing itself had made no impression upon me.
I had considered it as a hobby, a stamp collection, and forgotten it.
war over, I found myself possessed of a tiny demobilisation bonus and a large
desire to breathe fresh air for a while. It
was with no other objective that I again took the road to the barren lands.
countryside had not changed. However,
beyond the deserted village I glimpsed in the distance a sort of greyish mist
that covered the mountains like a carpet. Since
the day before, I had begun to think again of the shepherd tree planter.
“Ten thousand oaks,” I reflected, “really do take up quite a bit of
space.” I had seen too many men die during those five years not to
imagine easily that Elzeard Bouffier was dead, especially since, at twenty, one
regards men of fifty as old men with nothing left to do but die.
He was not dead. As a matter of fact, he was extremely spry.
He had changed jobs. Now he
had only four sheep, but, instead, a hundred beehives.
He had got rid of the sheep because they threatened his young trees.
For, he told me (and saw for myself), the war had disturbed him not at
all. He had imperturbably continued
to plant. The oaks of 1910 were
then ten years old and taller than either of us.
It was an impressive spectacle. I
was literally speechless and, as he did not talk, we spent the whole day walking
in silence through his forest. In
three sections, it measured eleven kilometres in length and three kilometres at
its greatest width. When you
remember that all this had sprung from the hands and soul of this one man
without technical resources, you understand that men could be as effectual as
God in realms other than that of destruction.
had pursued his plan, and beech trees as high as my shoulder, spreading out as
far as the eye could reach, confirmed it. He
showed me handsome clumps of birch planted five years before – that is, in
1915, when I had been fighting at Verdun. He had set them out in all the valleys where he had guessed
– and rightly – that there was moisture almost at the surface of the ground.
seemed to come about in a sort of chain reaction. He did not worry about it;
he was determinedly pursuing his task in all its simplicity;
but as we went back towards the village I saw water flowing in brooks
that had been dry since the memory of man.
This was the most impressive result of chain reaction that I had seen.
These dry streams had once, long ago, run with water.
Some of the dreary villages I mentioned before had been built on the
sites of ancient Roman settlements, traces of which still remained;
and archaeologists exploring there had found fishhooks where, in the
twentieth century, cisterns were needed to assure a small supply of water.
wind, too, scattered seeds. As the
water reappeared, so there reappeared willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, flowers
and a certain purpose in being alive. But
the transformation took place so gradually that it became part of the pattern
without causing astonishment. That
is why no one meddled with Elzeard Bouffier’s work.
If he had been detected he would have had opposition.
He was undetectable. Who in
the villages or in the administration could have dreamed of such perseverance in
a magnificent generosity?
have anything like a precise idea of his 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 speech. Or
perhaps it was that he saw no need for it?
In 1933 he received a visit from a forest ranger who notified him of an
order against lighting fires out of doors for fear of endangering the growth of
the ‘natural’ forest. It was
the first time, the man told him naively, that he had ever heard of a forest
growing of its own accord. At that
time Bouffier was about to plant beeches at a spot some twelve kilometres from
1935 a whole delegation came from the government to examine the ‘natural
forest’. There was a high
official from the Forest Service, a Deputy, technicians.
There was a great deal of ineffectual talk. It was decided that something must be done and, fortunately,
nothing was done except the only helpful thing;
the whole forest was placed under the protection of the State, and
charcoal burning prohibited. For it
was impossible not to be captivated by the beauty of those young trees in the
fullness of health, and they cast their spell over the Deputy himself.
friend of mine was among the forestry officers of the delegation.
To him I explained the mystery. One
day the following week we went together to see Elzeard Bouffier.
We found him hard at work, some ten kilometres from the spot where the
inspection had taken place.
forester was not my friend for
nothing. He was aware of values.
He knew how to keep silent. I
delivered the eggs I had brought as a present.
We shared our lunch among the three of us and spent several hours in
wordless contemplation of the countryside.
the direction from which we had come the slopes were covered with trees twenty
to twenty-five feet tall. I
remembered how the land had looked in 1913, a desert.
Peaceful, regular toil, the vigorous mountain air, frugality and, above
all, serenity in the spirit had endowed this old man with awe-inspiring health.
He was one of God’s athletes. I
wondered how many more acres he was going to cover with trees.
leaving, my friend made a brief suggestion about certain species of trees that
the soil here seemed particularly suited for.
He did not force the point, for the very good reason, he told me later,
“that Bouffier knows more about it than I do.”
At the end of an hour’s walking – having turned it over in his mind
– he added, “He knows a lot more about it than anybody. He’s discovered a wonderful way to be happy.”
was thanks to this officer that not only the forest but also the happiness of
the man was protected. He delegated
three rangers to the task, and so terrorised them that they remained proof
against all the bottles of wine the charcoal-burners could offer.
The only serious danger to the work occurred during the War of 1939.
As cars were being run on gazogenes (wood-burning generators), there was
never enough wood. Cutting was
started among the oaks of 1910, but the area was so far from any railway that
the enterprise turned out to be financially unsound.
It was abandoned. The
shepherd had seen nothing of it. He
was thirty kilometres away, peacefully continuing his work ignoring the war of
1939 as he had ignored that of 1914.
saw Elzeard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945.
He was then eighty-seven. I
started back along the route through the wastelands;
but now, in spite of the disorder in which the war had left the country,
there was a bus running between the Durance Valley and the mountain.
I attributed the fact that I no longer recognised the scenes of my
earlier journeys to this relatively speedy transportation. It took the name of a village to convince me that I was
actually in that region that had been all ruins and desolation.
bus put me down at Vergons. In 1913
this hamlet of ten or twelve houses had three inhabitants. They had been savage
creatures, hating one another, living by trapping game, little removed,
physically and morally, from prehistoric conditions.
All about them nettles were feeding upon the remains of abandoned houses.
Their condition had been beyond hope.
For them, nothing but to await death – a situation which rarely
predisposes to virtue.
was changed. Even the air.
Instead of the harsh dry winds that used to attack me, a gentle breeze
was blowing, laden with scents. A
sound like water came from the mountains; it
was the wind in the forest. Most
amazing of all, I heard the actual sound of water falling into a pool.
I saw that a fountain had been built, that it flowed freely and – what
touched me most – that someone had planted a linden beside it, a linden that
must have been four years old, already in full leaf, the incontestable symbol of
Vergons bore evidence of labour at the sort of undertaking for which hope is
required. Hope, then, had returned.
Ruins had been cleared away, dilapidated walls torn down and five houses
restored. Now there were twenty-eight inhabitants, four of them, young
married couples. The new houses,
freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens where vegetables and flowers grew
in orderly confusion, cabbages and roses, leeks and snapdragons, celery and
anemones. It was now a village
where one would like to live.
From that point I went on foot. The
war just finished had not allowed the full blooming of life, but Lazarus was out
of the tomb. On the lower slopes of
the mountain I saw little fields of barley and rye, deep in the narrow valley
the meadows were turning green.
has taken only the eight years since then for the whole countryside to glow with
health and prosperity. On the site
of the ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms, cleanly plastered,
testifying to a happy and comfortable life.
The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves,
are flowing again. Their waters
have been channelled. On each farm,
in groves of maples, fountain pools overflow onto carpets of fresh mint.
Little by little the villages have been rebuilt.
People from the plains, where land is costly, have settled here, bringing
youth, motion, the spirit of adventure. Along
the roads you meet hearty men and women, boys and girls who understand laughter
and have recovered a taste for picnics. Counting
the former population, unrecognisable now that they live in comfort, more than
10,000 people owe their happiness to Elzeard Bouffier.
I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources,
was able to cause this land Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced
that, in spite of everything, humanity is admirable. But when I compute the unfailing greatness of spirit and
tenacity of benevolence that it must have taken to achieve this result, I am
taken with an immense respect for that old and unlearned peasant who was able to
complete a work worthy of God.
Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the hospice in Banon.
Page last updated: 05/04/02