The Man Who Planted Trees
For the character of a human to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one needs to have the good fortune of being able to observe his actions over many years. If his actions are free of all egotism, if his guiding principle is unequalled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that no reward was sought anywhere and his ideas have left a visible impression on the world; one has, without any doubt, found an unforgettable character.
This region is bordered to the south and south-east by the central course of the Durance, between Sisteron and Mirabeau; to the north by the upper course of the Drôme, from its source until Die; in the west by the plains of Comtat Venaissin and the foothills of Mont Ventoux. It encompasses the whole northern part of the department of Basses Alpes, the southern part of the department of Drôme, and a small enclave of the department of Vaucluse.
At the time, when I undertook my long stroll through this desert, at 1200 to 1300 meters above sea level, it was a barren and monotonous area. Nothing but wild lavender grew there.
I crossed this country along its largest extent and, after three days, I found myself in a most desolate spot. I camped besides the remains of an abandoned village. I had exhausted my water supply the day before and desperately needed to find a source. These buildings, even if they were just ruins, agglomerated like an old wasps' nest, made me think that there must have been once a well or a spring. Indeed there was a well, but all dried out. The five or six houses, without roofs, eroded by wind and rain, the old chapel caved in, were neat and tidy like houses and chapels in inhabited villages, but all life had disappeared.
It was a beautiful and sunny day in June, but on these high plains without shelter, a brutal wind blew unbearably. As it soughed through the carcasses of these old houses, it roared like a wild animal disturbed while feeding.
I had to break my camp and move on. After five hours, I still had found no trace of water, and I despaired to find any. Everywhere the same dryness, the same woody herbs. In the distance, I thought I saw a small black silhouette, upright, which I took for the trunk of a lone tree. More by chance than by determination, I continued my way in its direction. It was a shepherd. About thirty sheep rested close to him on the hot ground.
He let me drink from his water bottle, and then guided me to his cabin, hidden behind a low mound on the plain. He got his—excellent—water from a deep natural hole, above which he had installed a rudimentary winch.
This man barely talked. Such is the way of loners, but one felt that he was sure of himself and confident of his self-assessment. It was strange in this country stripped of everything. He did not live in a shack but in a true house made of stone, and one could see easily where and how he had restored the ruin he must have found there when he had first arrived there. The roof was solid and tight. The wind blowing across the tiles made the sound of waves washing ashore.
He kept a proper household, his dishes were done, the floor was swept clean, his gun well greased, his soup boiling over the fire. I also noticed that he was freshly shaved, his buttons carefully sewed on, and his clothing had been darned with the great care that renders the repairs nearly invisible.
He shared his soup with me, and when I offered him my tobacco pouch, he said he didn't smoke. His dog, quiet like the man himself, was friendly and without baseness.
It had been silently understood right away that I would spend the night there; the next village was still a day's march and a half away. Furthermore, I knew the character of these villages perfectly well. There are four or five, spread apart on the slopes of this high plain amidst thickets of white oak, at the very end of the navigable roads. They are inhabited by charburners making charcoal. These are bad places to live. Living close to one another in this rough climate, Summer and Winter alike, the families being cramped together in close quarters increases their selfishness and leads to excessive unreflected ambition in their constant desire to escape these places.
The men bring the coal to the city in their trucks and then return. Even the best qualities are eroded by this perpetual contrast bath. The women are embittered, always bearing a grudge. These people compete about anything, from the coal sale to the place on the church bank, about the virtues of the women and the vices of the men, and about the general fray of the vices and the virtues, without rest. On top of that, the equally incessant wind strains the nerves. Suicide is epidemic, and there are many cases of madness, nearly always deadly.
The shepherd, who did not smoke, fetched a small bag from which he poured a pile of acorns onto the table. He began examining them closely one after the other, separating the good ones from the bad ones. I smoked my pipe. I offered to help. He told me this was his business. And indeed, seeing with how much care he performed the job, I did not insist. That was our whole conversation. Once he had separated enough of the good acorns, he counted them in packets of ten, eliminating in the process the smaller ones or those that were slightly chapped, for he truly scrutinized them. Once he had lying one hundred perfect acorns in front of him, he stopped and we went to bed.
The company of this man instilled peace. I asked him the next morning whether I might stay and relax the whole day there at his place. He found it completely normal, or, more exactly, he gave me the impression that nothing could disturb him. I didn't really need the rest, but I had become curious and wanted to know more. He collected his flock of sheep and led them to their pastures. Before leaving, he dunked the small bag in which he had collected the carefully chosen and counted acorns into a bucket of water.
I noticed that instead of a stick he carried an iron rod, thick like a thumb and about a meter and a half long. I just leisurely walked along, on a path parallel to his. The pasture of his animals was in a small depression. He left his dog in charge of the flock and climbed back up to me. I feared he would reproach me for my intrusion, but not at all: it was his usual route and he invited me to accompany him if I had nothing better to do. He walked for about two hundred meters.
When he had arrived where he had wanted to go, he planted his iron rod into the ground. In the hole he put an acorn, which he then covered again. He was planting oaks. I asked him if this land was his property. He answered in the negative. Did he know whose land it was? He didn't know. He assumed it was common property, or maybe it belonged to someone who didn't care about it. He didn't worry about knowing the landowners. In this way, he planted extremely carefully one hundred acorns.
After we had eaten at noon, he began again to sort his seeds. I must have asked insistingly enough, for he answered my questions. For three years he had been planting trees in this solitude, more than one hundred thousand acorns. Of these one hundred thousand, twenty thousand had grown. He expected to lose half of these twenty thousand, due to rodents or simply the unpredictables in the nature of destiny. Remained ten thousand oaks that would grow in this place where there had been nothing before.
At that point, I suddenly wondered how old this man was. He was visibly older than fifty years. Fifty-five, he told me. His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He once had owned a farm in the valley. He had accomplished his life. He had lost his only son, then his wife. He had retreated to this lonely place, where he was content and happy to live a slow life, with his sheep and his dog. He had come to the conclusion that this country was dying for want of trees. He added that, since he had no more important business, he had decided to remedy this situation.
As I was at that time, despite my youth, leading a solitary life, I knew that the heart of a recluse had to be touched delicately. Nevertheless, I made a mistake. Precisely because of my young age, I could not help but imagine the future according to myself and a certain search for happiness. I told him that in thirty years, these ten thousand oaks would be magnificent. He answered simply that, if God lent him life, in thirty years, he would have planted so many others that these ten thousand would be like a drop of water in the sea.
Moreover, he was already experimenting with the reproduction of beeches, and he had behind his house a seedbed with trees grown from beech-nuts. Protected from his sheep by a fence made of wire netting, they were splendid. He was also thinking about birches for the depressions where, so he told me, there was moisture only a few meters below the surface.
We parted the following day.
The next year, the war of 14 broke out, in which I served for five years. An infantryman had no time to think about trees. To tell the truth, the encounter had not lasted with me: it had been no more than a hobby-horse, like a stamp collection, and I had forgotten it.
Discharged after the war, I found myself with only a small demobilization premium, but with a big desire to breathe a little pure air. Without an exact plan—except this one—I retraced my steps through this barren region.
The country had not changed. But still, beyond the dead village, I saw in the distance a kind of grey fog covering the heights like a carpet. Since the last evening, I had been thinking again about this shepherd tree planter. "Ten thousand oaks," I said to myself, "occupy a really large space."
I had seen too many people die in the last five years not to imagine easily the death of Elzéar Bouffier, even more so because at twenty, one considers anyone of fifty years to be an old man with nothing left but death. He had not died. He was even extremely spry. He had switched trade. He only had four sheep, but, on the other hand, a hundred bee hives. He had gotten rid of the sheep which put in danger his tree plantations. Because, he told me (and I realized it), he had not worried at all about the war. He had continued imperturbably to plant.
The oaks from 1910 were then ten years old and taller than me or him. The sight was awe-inspiring. I was literally at a loss of words, and, as he did not talk either, we spent the whole day walking in silence though his forest. It was, in three sections, eleven kilometers long and up to three kilometers wide. Remembering that all this had come from the hands and the soul of this man—without technical support—one understood that man could be as effective as God, not only in the field of destruction.
He had followed his plan, as witnessed by the beeches, which reached my shoulders, spread as far as one could see. The oaks were thick and had grown beyond the stage where they were at the mercy of rodents; and regarding the nature of destiny itself, it would have to use cyclones to destroy this work. He showed me admirable thickets of birches going back to five years, i.e., of 1915, of the time when I fought at Verdun. He had planted them in the depressions where he suspected, with good reason, that water was available just beneath the ground. They were tender like youths and very determined.
The creation seemed furthermore to cause some secondary effects. He didn't worry about it, he just very simply obstinately continued his task. But when I descended to the village, I saw water flowing in brooks that, within living memory, had always been dry. It was the most impressive chain reaction that I have ever had the opportunity to see. These brooks had formerly, in ancient times, already carried water. Some of the miserable villages I have mentioned above had been built on the sites of old gallo-roman settlements of which there were still traces and in which archaeologists had excavated. They had found fish hooks in places where in the twentieth century, one needed to build cisterns to have a little water.
The wind also disseminated some seeds. With the return of the water, willows, osiers, grasses, meadows, gardens, flowers and a reason for living came back.
But the transformation proceeded so slowly that it was accepted without astonishment in the daily life. The hunters who climbed the heights in pursuit of hares or wild boars had well noticed the proliferation of the small trees, but they had attributed it to the freaks of nature. Therefore, nobody disturbed the work of this man. If they had suspected it was his doing, they would have interfered. He was above suspicion. Who could have imagined, in the villages and in the administrations, such perseverance in the most splendid generosity?
From 1920 on, I visited Elzéard Bouffier each year. I never saw him feel down or doubting. And still, only God knows if God himself pushed him! I did not take the account of his vexations. But one can easily image that for such a success, it was necessary to overcome adversity; that to ensure the victory of such a passion, despair had to be fought. In one year, he had planted more than ten thousand maple trees. They all died. The next year, he abandoned the maples and returned to the beeches, which grew even better than the oaks.
To get a better idea of this exceptional character, one must not forget that he performed his feat in total solitude, so total that, towards the end of his life, he lost the habit to speak. Or perhaps he considered it unnecessary?
In 1933, a dumbfounded forest ranger came to visit him. This functionary served him an order not to make fire outside to not endanger the growth of this natural forest. This was the first time, said this naive man, that a forest was observed to grow all alone. At that time, he used to plant beeches twelve kilometers away from his house. To avoid having to return each evening—for he was seventy-five years old—he contemplated building a small stone cabin at the place where he was planting then. He did so the next year.
In 1935, a true administrative delegation came to examine the "natural forest". There was a big shot from the National Forestry Commission, an elected representative, technicians. Lots of useless words were spoken. It was decided to do something, and luckily, nothing was done except the only useful measure: the forest was placed under the protection of the state and it was prohibited to go make charcoal there. It was impossible not to be subjugated by the beauty of these young healthy trees. The forest exerted its seductive power even on the representative himself.
I had a friend among the forestry managers, who was a member of this delegation. I explained the mystery to him. One day the next week, we both went to visit Elzéard Bouffier. We found him at his work, twenty kilometers away from the place of the inspection.
This forestry manager was not my friend for nothing. He knew about the value of things. He knew when to remain quiet. I offered some eggs I had brought as a present. We shared our snack amongst us three and passed several hours in silent contemplation of the landscape.
The area we had come from was covered by trees between six to seven meters tall. I remembered how this area had looked in 1913: a desert... The peaceful and regular work, the fresh mountain air, his simple life and most of all the serenity of his soul had given this old man an almost solemn health. He was an athlete of God. I wondered how many hectares more he would cover with trees.
Before we left, my friend made only a brief suggestion concerning certain trees for which this ground might provide a healthy habitat. He didn't insist. "For the simple reason," he told me afterwards, "that this man knows more about it than I." After another hour of walking—having mulled over the idea—he added: "He knows more about it than the whole world. He has found a great way of being happy!"
Thanks to this manager, not only the forest, but also the happiness of this man were henceforth protected. He appointed three foresters to enforce the protection and terrorized them such that they remained insensitive to all bribery attempts of any loggers.
The work was endangered seriously only during the war of 1939. The cars then ran on gas generators fueled by charcoal or wood, and there was never enough wood. They began logging the oaks of 1910, but the region is so far away from all traffic lines that the enterprise was a huge financial failure. It was abandoned. The shepherd never saw anything of it. He was thirty kilometers further away, peacefully continuing his task, ignoring the war of 39 as he had ignored the war of 14.
I saw Elzéard Bouffier for the last time in June 1945. He was then eighty-seven years old. I had returned to the desert, but now, despite the dilapidated state in which the war had left the country, there was a bus service between the valley of the Durance and the mountains. To this relatively fast means of transport I attributed my not recognizing anymore the country of my earlier strolls. It also seemed to to me that the route made me pass by new places. Only by the name of a village could I assert that I was right in that same formerly sorry and ruined region. I got off the bus at Vergons.
In 1913, this hamlet of ten to twelve houses had three inhabitants. They were savage, detested each other, and lived from trapping: they lived in about the physical and moral state of prehistoric men. Nettles devoured the abandoned houses around them. They were in a hopeless condition. They could only wait for death: a situation that hardly predisposes one to virtue.
All had changed. Even the air itself. Instead of the dry and brutal gusts of wind which had greeted me formerly, a soft breeze charged with aromatic odors blew. A sound similar to that of water came from the heights: it was that of the wind in the forests. Finally and most astonishingly I heard the true sound of water plashing in a basin. I saw that there was indeed a fountain, that it was abundant, and, which touched me most, that someone had planted a lime tree next to it, which might already have been four years old, already thick; an undeniable symbol of resurrection.
Elsewhere, Vergons showed the traces of maintenance work for which hope was a necessity. Hope had thus returned. One had cleared the ruins, had cut down the dilapidated sections of wall and had rebuilt five houses. The hamlet now counted twenty-eight inhabitants, including four young families. The new buildings, freshly plastered in roughcast, were surrounded by kitchen gardens where there grew, mixed but neatly aligned, vegetables and flowers, cabbage and roses, leek and snapdragons, celery and anemones. It had become a inviting place where one would have liked to live.
From there on, I made my way by foot. The war having just ended, life had not yet fully recovered, but Lazarus had risen from the grave. On the lower flanks of the mountains, I saw small fields of barley and of rye; at the bottom of the narrow valleys there were green pastures.
In no more than the eight years that have passed since then the whole region became resplendent with health and prosperity. In place of the ruins I had seen in 1913, there are now neat farms, well plastered, suggesting a happy and comfortable life. The old sources, fed by the rain and the snow held back by the forests, are running again. Their water is caught and channeled. Besides each farm, in groves of maple, the fountains overflow onto carpets of fresh mint. The villages have been rebuilt piece by piece. New people have come from the plains, where real estate is expensive, and have settled in the region, bringing youth, movement, and the spirit of adventure with them. In the streets, one meets well-fed men and women, boys and girls who can laugh and who have rediscovered a taste for country festivals. Including the old inhabitants, unrecognizable since they live gently with the new arrivals, more than ten thousand people owe their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier.
When I think that one single man, reduced to his own simple physical and spiritual resources, was sufficient to turn this desert into this land of Canaan, I consider the human condition admirable after all. But when I account for all the unwavering nobility of the soul and the determined generosity necessary to achieve this result, I feel a deep respect for this old peasant without culture who managed to conclude this work worthy of God.
Elzéard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the nursing home of Banon.
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