by Jean Giono,
more information about
[Unfortunately, it would appear that the particular web site from which
parts of this page were copied is no longer in existence, so it was perhaps fortunate that I
copied this wonderful story when I did! Some of the links below do not now appear to
work. There are, however, several other web sites where it
can be read in the original French - Edwin]
Illustration by Frédéric Back as part of a film
made in 1987,
the narration for which was by Philippe Noiret
English | Korean |
video animation | Original French version ]
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 left its visible mark upon the earth, then there
can be no mistake.
About forty years ago I was taking a long trip on foot over mountain heights
quite unknown to tourists, in that ancient region where the Alps thrust down
into Provence. All this, at the time I embarked upon my long walk through these
deserted regions, was barren and colourless land. Nothing grew there but wild
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.
It was a fine June day, brilliant with sunlight, but over this unsheltered land,
high in the sky, the wind blew with unendurable ferocity. It growled over
carcasses of the houses like a lion disturbed at its meal. I had to move my
After 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
toward it. It was a shepherd. Thirty sheep were lying about him on the baking
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.
The man spoke little. This is the way of those who live alone, but one felt that
he has 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 its
tiles made the sound of the sea upon its shore.
The place was in order, the dishes washed, the floor swept, his rifle oiled; his
soup was boiling over the fire. I noticed then that he was cleanly shaved, that
all his buttons were firmly sewed on, that his clothing had been mended with the
meticulous care that makes the mending invisible. He shared his soup with me and
afterwards, when I offered my tobacco pouch, he told me that he did not smoke.
His dog, as silent as himself, was friendly without being servile.
It 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 villages 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 end of the wagon roads. They
were inhabited by charcoal burners, and the living was bad. Families, crowded
together in a climate that is excessively harsh both in winter and in summer,
found no escape from the unceasing conflict of personalities. Irrational
ambition reached inordinate proportions in the continual desire for escape. The
men took their wagonloads of charcoal to the town, then returned. The soundest
characters broke under the perpetual grind. The women nursed their grievances.
There was rivalry in everything, over the price of charcoal as over a pew in the
church, over warring virtues as over warring vices as well as over the ceaseless
combat between virtue and vice. And over all there was the wind, also ceaseless,
to rasp upon the nerves. There were epidemics of suicide and frequent cases of
insanity, usually homicidal.
The 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 we went to bed.
There was peace in being with this man. The next day I asked if I might rest
here for a day. 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.
I 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 dog in charge of the little flock
and climbed toward where I stood. I was afraid that he was about the 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.
There 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 the 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 one hundred thousand. Of
the hundred thousand, twenty thousand had expected to lose half, to rodents or
to the unpredictable designs of Providence. There remained ten thousand oak
trees to grow where nothing had grown before.
That 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 Elezeard Bouffier. He had once had a
farm in the lowlands. There he had his life. He had lost his only son, then this
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.
Since I was at that time, in spite of my youth, leading a solitary life, I
understood how to deal gently 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 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.
Besides, 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 had
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.
The next day, we parted.
The following year came the War of 1914, in which I was involved for the next
five years. An infantry man hardly had time for reflecting upon trees. To tell
the truth, the thing itself had made no impression upon me; I had considered as
a hobby, a stamp collection, and forgotten it.
The war was over, I found myself possessed of a tiny demobilization bonus and a
huge desire to breathe fresh air for a while. It was with no other objective
that I again took the road to the barren lands.
The countryside had not changed. However, beyond the deserted village I glimpsed
in the distance a sort of grayish mist that covered the mountaintops like a
carpet. Since the day before, I had begun to think again of the shepherd
tree-planter. "Ten thousand oaks," I reflected, "really take up quite a bit of
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 I
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 kilometers in length and three kilometers at its greatest
width. When you remembered that all this had sprung from the hands and the soul
of this one man, without technical resources, you understand that men could be
as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.
He 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. They were
as delicate as young girls, and very well established.
Creation 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 toward 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.
The 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 any astonishment. Hunters, climbing into the wilderness
in pursuit of hares or wild boar, had of course noticed the sudden growth of
little trees, but had attributed it to some natural caprice of the earth. 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
To have anything like a precise idea of this exceptional character one must not
forget that he worked in total solitude: so total that, toward the end of his
life, he lost the habit of speech. Or perhaps it was that he saw no need for it.
In 1993 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 this
natural forest. It was the first time, that man told him naively, that he
had ever heard of a forest growing out of its own accord. At that time Bouffier
was about to plant beeches at a spot some twelve kilometers from his cottage. In
order to avoid travelling back and forth - for he was then seventy-five - he
planned to build a stone cabin right at the plantation. The next year he did so.
In 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
some thing 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 fullness of health, and they cast their spell
over the deputy himself.
A 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
Elezeard Bouffier. We found him hard at work, some ten kilometers from the spot
where the inspection had taken place.
This 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
In 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 of 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.
Before leaving, my friend simply 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 his
mind - he added, "He knows a lot more about it than anybody. He's discovered a
wonderful way to be happy!"
It 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 terrorized
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 rail roads that the enterprise turned out to be financially unsound. It was
abandoned. The shepherd had seen nothing of it. He was thirty kilometers away,
peacefully continuing his work, ignoring the war of '39 as he had ignored that
I saw Elzeard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945. He was then
eighty-seven. I had started back along the route through the wastelands; by 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 recognized the scenes of my earlier journeys to this relatively
speedy transportation. It seemed to me, too, that the route took me through new
territory. It took the name of a village to convince me that I was actually in
that region that had been all ruins and desolation.
The 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, both physically and morally, from the conditions
of prehistoric man. 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.
Everything 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 some one had
planted a linden beside it, a linden that must have been four years old, already
in full leaf, the incontestable symbol of resurrection.
Besides, 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 on I went on foot. The war just finished had not yet 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 barely and of rye; deep in the narrow
valleys the meadows were turning green.
It has taken only the eight years since then for the whole countryside to glow
with health and prosperity. On the site of 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 on to 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 ten thousand people owe their happiness
to Elezeard Bouffier.
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. But when I
compute the unfailing greatness of spirit and the 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
Elezeard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the hospice in Banon.
World Environment Day is usually "celebrated" on or about June 5 every year -
and what does this mean to you, dear reader?
With the opening of the third millennium, the earth is in serious trouble.
Pollution is ravaging the cities. Deserts are swamping the green earth. Our
forest resources are being depleted as trees continue to be felled
indiscriminately. Various species are getting extinct. As a result of man's
greed and callousness, less than 500 tigers remain. The leopard, the elephant
and the turtle are also in dire straits.
The polar ice-cap is said by scientists now only to be half as thick as it was
100 years ago, and by the ned of this century - nay, probably well before that -
the oceans over the top of the north pole could well only freeze over during the
inter months (all of which is flatly contradicted by the USA, who believe the
rest of Europe is scare-mongering).
In such a scenario, efforts at conservation, sustainable development and global
co-operation can save the earth.
The following was the original footnote to the story -
Written in 1954, the story has been translated into a dozen languages. It
has long since inspired reforestation efforts, world-wide. The hero of Giono's
tale planted hope and grew happiness. He could, but of course, be Everyman. It is a story of one
man's love for the good earth, and it is written by Jean Giono, one of the
greatest French writers. The book is illustrated with wood engravings by Michael
McCurdy with an afterword by Norma L.Goodrich.
IndiaWorld dedicates Giono's story to our very own.
Illustration by Frédéric Back
First published in 1954 by Vogue magazine, Jean Giono's story has been
translated into at least a dozen languages. It has since inspired reforestation
efforts, worldwide. Giono was a self-taught man. He lived virtually his
entire life in the little city of Manosque in France. His elderly father was a
cobbler and his mother, he tells us in his early novel jean le bleu (Blue
Boy), ran a hand laundry. This family of three resided in the poorest of
tenements where the child had only a blue view down into the well, or courtyard.
At age sixteen, becoming sole support of the family, Giono left school and went
to clerk in a bank. Eighteen years later, in 1929, he published his first two
novels, Colline (Hill of Destiny) and Un de Baumugnes (Lovers Are
Never Losers), both rave success, in part thanks to the instant sponsorship
of Andre Gide.
Years afterward Giono recalled the turning point in his life, to a moment in the
afternoon of December 20, 1911, when he could spare enough pennies to purchase
the cheapest book he could find. It turned out to be a copy of Virgil's poems.
He never forgot that first flush of his own creative energy: "My heart soared."
Giono ran into difficulties with the American editors who in 1953 asked him to
write a few pages about an unforgettable character. Apparently the publishers
required a story about an actual unforgettable character, while Giono chose to
write some pages about that character which to him would be most
unforgettable. When what he wrote met with the objection that no "Bouffier" had
died in the shelter at Banon, a tiny mountain hamlet, Giono donated his pages to
all and sundry. Not long after the story was rejected, it was accepted by
Vogue and published in March 1954 as "The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew
Happiness." Giono later wrote an American admirer of the tale that his purpose
in creating Bouffier "was to make people love the tree, or more precisely, to
make them love planting trees."
Giono interpreted the "character," as an individually unforgettable if
unselfish, generous beyond measure, leaving on earth its mark without thought of
reward. Giono believed he left his mark on earth when he wrote Elzeard
Bouffier's story because he gave it away for the good of others, heedless of
payment: It is one of my stories of which I am the proudest. It does not bring
me in one single penny and that is why it has accomplished what it was written
In The Man Who Planted Trees, the author's adventure commenced in June
1913, during a walking tour through Julius Caesar's ancient Roman province,
still so called: Provence. As Giono trudged along the wild, deserted high
plateau, he heard the wind growl like a lion over the ruins which lay like black
carcasses and rush like ocean waves over the high country. Fearful and exposed,
he saw mirages like the gaunt, black silhoutte of a grieving woman he mistook
for a dead tree. He met a shepherd, a pastor ministering to sheep, one of
those solitary men associated from all time with congregations and Providence.
By the end of World War I this same shepherd had become a beekeeper who already
resembled God more narrowly by his power to create a new earth. He was planting
oaks, beeches, and briches. Miraculously, water was conserved, dry stream beds
filled again, and seeds germinated into gardens, meadows, and flowers. In 1993
this planter of trees of seventy-five years of age was clearly one of God's
athletes. After World War II in 1913 all had lain waste. The shepherd had
performed his solitary work, which Giono hoped he also had done. Both hoped to
be worthy of God.
The name Elezeard calls to mind some unforgotten Hebrew prophet, wise man, or
Oriental king. The last name means in both French and English some thing
grandoise: bouffi, bouff'e, that is puffed up (like a great man), puffed
out (like wind, or a cloud in the sky). Such an old hero appears remarkably in
most of Giono's early fiction, often a shepherd, or else some venerable
alcoholic, storyteller, old hired man, or knife sharphener, but usually escorted
by beasts: sheep, bees, a bull, a stag, a toad, or a serpent. Such lonely old
men in their delirium directly hear the voice of God, or that of some ageless
Greek such as the great Pan. One must think of these variously gifted old men as
embodying the creative gods themselves, as native survivals in this ancient
Provence to which they continuously brought their wisdom, their knowledge of
agriculture, their message of life indestructible, all of them teaching, like
the titanic Dionysus, the precious secret of humanity's ancient kinship with the
When we express pity, Giono used to say, as for a living river cut off by dams,
or pity for the helpless suffering beast killed by cruel humankind, then we
ourselves resemble the ancient yellow gods who still look down on us from
Olympus. Should we not extend our compassion to the forest before it is felled
by the woodcutters? This was not original in French literature, of course, but
could have come to the child Giono as he read the Fables of La Fontaine in
school. His thinking was reinforced by his favorite American "apostles of
Nature," Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.
In his wonderful story of Elezeard Bouffier, Giono seems to have intended to
inspire a reforestation program that would renew the whole earth. His history of
this imaginary shepherd, which is a compliment to Americans because of its
relationship to the real Johnny Appleseed, calmly veers away from past and
present time towards the future of newer and better generations. Giono termed
his confidence in the future esp'erance, or hopefulness, not
espoir, which is the masculine word for hope, but esp'erance, the
feminine word designating the permanent state or condition of living one's life
hopeful tranquility. Whence springs this well of esp'erance, Giono
Hopefulness must spring, he decided, from literature and the profession of
poetry. Authors only write. So, to be fair about it, they have an obligation to
profess hopefulness, in return for their right to live and write. The poet must
know the magical effect of certain words: hay, grass, meadows, willows, rivers,
firs, mountains, hills. People have suffered so long inside walls that they have
forgotten to be free, Giono thought. Human beings were not created to live
forever in subways and tenements, for their feet long to stride through all
grass, or slide through running water. The poet's mission is to remind us of
beauty, of trees swaying in the breeze, or pines groaning under snow in the
mountain passes, of wild white horses galloping across the surf.
During his lifetime Jean Giono, who considered himself to be Italian and
Provencal, in addition to French, was judged one of the greatest writers of our
age by such authorities as Henri Peyre and Andre Malraux. Both Peyre and Malraux
ranked Giono first or second in French twentieth century literature: Giono,
Montherlant, and Malraux (who included himself). Longevity counts most for an
author, and Giono's works are still being edited and published after fifty-six
years. Giono wrote over thirty novels, numerous essays, scores of stories, many
of which were published as collections, plays, and film scripts. In 1953 he was
awarded the Prix Mon'egasque for his collective work, and in 1954 he was elected
to the Acad'emie Goncourt, whose ten members award the annual Prix Goncourt.
Giono laughingly said people in Paris sent him questionnaries because they did
not want to read his books. But if we look at one of these documents he
answered, we can hear him speak in his usual teasing voice and mood: My ideal
happiness? Peace. My favourite fictional hero? Don Quixote. My
favourite historical character? Machiavelli. My heroines in real life?
There are no heroines in real life. My painter? Goya. My musician?
Mazarat. My Poet? Villon. Baudelaire. My color? Red. My
flower? The narcissus. My chief character trait? Generosity.
Faithfulness. My chief fault? The generous lie. What I want to be?
Lenient. My preferred occupation? Writing.
In recent years some of Giono's most highly regarded novels have been reprinted
by North Point Press and are once again available to English-speaking readers.
These are: Harvest (1930), Blue Boy (1932), Song of the World
(1934), Joy of Man's Desiring (1935), Horseman on the Roof (1951),
and The Straw Man (1958).
Jean Giono died, midway through his seventy-fifth year.
Read about Jean Giono's free gift of this story to the world.
In particular, read
The following are also internet sites where versions of this
story still exist:
(Document en format pdf; le texte se trouve page 4).
(Version flash illustrée par des dessins d'enfants).