When the 1914 war was over I found myself with a small amount of demob money and a great desire to breathe some fresh air. So with no other purpose but that I set out again for the same deserted landscapes as before. The country itself hadn’t changed. But when I got beyond the dead village I could see in the distance a kind of grey mist covering the hills like a carpet. Since the previous evening I’d started thinking about the tree-planting shepherd again. “Ten thousand oaks take up a lot of room,” I reflected. I’d seen so many people die in the last five years I could easily imagine that Elzéard Bouffier must be dead too. The more so as, when you’re twenty, men of fifty seem like old codgers with one foot in the grave. But he wasn’t dead. On the contrary he was still very spry. He had adopted a different calling. There were only four ewes left, but now he had about a hundred beehives. He’d got rid of the sheep because they were a threat to his trees. For, as he told me, and as I could see for myself, he had taken no notice of the war and gone on imperturbably planting trees. By this time the 1910 oaks were ten years old and taller than both him and me. They were an impressive sight. I was left literally speechless, and as he didn’t speak either we spent the whole day walking silently through his forest. It was in three sections, and measured eleven kilometres across at its widest point. When you remembered that it had all emerged from the hands and spirit of this one man, without any technical aids, you saw that men could be as efficient as God in other things beside destruction. He’d stuck to all his plans, as was evident from the beech trees that came up to my shoulder and stretched away as far as the eye could see. The oaks were thick and dense, and past the age of being at the mercy of rodents. As for Providence and its powers of destruction, it would have taken a hurricane now to undo the shepherd’s creation. He showed me some beautiful birch plantations dating from five years back—1915, when I was fighting at Verdun. He’d put them in all the low lying places where he had rightly suspected there was dampness just beneath the surface of the soil. They were as fresh and tender as youths, and full of the will to live. There seemed to be a sort of chain reaction in all this creation, but Elzéard Bouffier didn’t trouble about that: he just went stubbornly on with his task, simple and natural as ever. But going back down through the village I saw there was water flowing in streams that had been dry as long as anyone could remember. As chain reactions go, this was the most remarkable one I’d ever seen. The last time those brooks had flowed was in very ancient times. Some of the dreary villages I mentioned at the beginning of this story were built on the sites of old Gallo-Roman villages, of which some traces still remained. Archaeologists had dug up fish hooks where, in the twentieth century, storage tanks were the only source of water. Seeds were carried on the wind, too, so as the water reappeared, so did willows, reeds, meadows, gardens, flowers and some reason for living. But the change came about so slowly, people got used to it and took it for granted. Hunters coming up into lonely places after hares and wild boar had noticed lots of young saplings, but they put it down to the whim of nature. That was why no one interfered with what the shepherd had done. If they’d suspected what he was up to they’d have tried to stop him. But no one did suspect it. How could anyone, whether in the villages or in government offices, have imagined such perseverance, such magnificent generosity? From 1920 on, I never let a year go by without paying Elzéard Bouffier a visit. I never saw him weaken or doubt. And yet God knows God Himself gave him cause to! I never counted up the setbacks and disappointments he met with. But inevitably so great an achievement must have had to surmount some adversity, and such a passion couldn’t have won through without some struggles against despair. He spent a year planting over ten thousand maples. They all died. The following year he dropped maples and went back to beeches, which turned out to be even more of a success than the oaks. One cannot properly appreciate this rare character unless one remembers that he accomplished what he did in complete solitude. So complete was his isolation that towards the end of his life he got out of the habit of speaking. Or did he no longer see any need for speech?
Jean Giono, The Man Who Planted Trees, Random House 2015, translation by Barbara Bray