20 December 2012

Jean Giono: L' Homme qui plantait des arbres (1953)

In 1953 the Readers' Digest asked Jean Giono (1895–1970) to write a short account about the most extraordinary person he'd ever met, and the product was L'Homme qui aimait les arbres, which I believe has been translated using several different titles in English, but the most literal one is 'The Man Who Planted Trees'.

L'Homme qui plantait des arbres is set in the harsh climate of the French Alps, where Giono's books expressed his deep concern about the depopulation of the villages. Giono – who fought in World War I and whose experiences of it led to him becoming a staunch pacifist – was born and died in Manosque, the largest town in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (04). In Giono's account, the young unnamed narrator is hiking in the area and is in need of water. He meets the much older Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd who gives him a drink and puts him up for two nights. During this time, the narrator discovers that over three years Elzéard has planted 100,000 acorns in this austere and severely underpopulated land, expects them to yield about 10,000 trees after wastage, and has plans for growing silver birch, beech and ash. No one knows that he's doing it, and he is not seeking financial gain.

The narrator leaves for the war and finds on his return to Elzéard (who has now turned to bee-keeping) that the planting has yielded a forest whose trees are already taller than the two men. Over the years the narrator regularly returns to see Elzéard, the mushrooming forests, and the fresh growth of a happy community until the old man dies peacefully in Banon.

It was a few years before Giono confessed that this is just a story, that there'd never been an Elzéard Bouffier, but that is of no importance. Essentially, L'Homme qui plantait des arbres is a kind of parable about the regeneration of an area – without the use of any complicated technology – by the work of just one selfless man, a man living in harmony with the natural world. The ecological message is clear, as is the anti-war one.

My other Jean Giono posts:

Jean Giono: Colline | Hill of Destiny
Jean Giono: Un de Baumugnes | Lovers Are Never Losers
Jean Giono in Manosque (04)
Sylvie Giono: Jean Giono à Manosque: Le Paraïs
Jean Giono: Le Hussard sur le toit | The Hussar on the Roof

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