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In the Footsteps of Giono

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 84, Spring 2000 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

In 1985 Vermont publisher Chelsea Green brought out the handsomely illustrated 80-page book The Man Who Planted Trees: The inspirational tale of a man who planted a forest, one acorn at a time by Jean Giono. It is so popular that it has been translated into a dozen languages; today the English version is available in hardcover, paperback, audiotape, and videotape.

In 1913 20-year-old Giono was walking where the Alps met Provence in a desolate, colorless area of baked earth, dry springs, deserted villages, ceaseless winds, and brutal weather. The villages had “epidemics of suicide and frequent cases of insanity, frequently homicidal.” The people were “savage creatures, hating one another, little removed, both physically and morally, from the condition of prehistoric man… Their condition had been beyond hope.”

Giono met Elzeard Bouffier, a 55-year-old widowed peasant shepherd who lived alone with his lambs and his dog. He had a tidy stone cottage and a deep natural well with excellent water. His hearty soup boiled gently while he tended his flock of thirty sheep. He mended his clothes so skillfully that the stitches were invisible. Bouffier selected perfect acorns and planted 100 every day while tending his sheep. In three years he had planted 100,000 oak trees, and he had a nursery of beech tree seedlings.

When Giono returned five years later, in 1918, the shepherd had become a beekeeper, the beech trees were already shoulder high, and the first oaks were taller than a man. Bouffier was still planting acorns. Giono said “I saw water flowing in brooks that had been dry since the memory of man.” As the water reappeared, so there reappeared willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, flowers, and a certain purpose in being alive.

When Giono returned in June 1945, the oaks were 20 to 25 feet tall and Bouffier was 87. “Instead of the harsh dry winds that used to attack me, a gentle breeze was blowing, laden with scents…. On the site of ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms, cleanly plastered, testifying to a happy and comfortable life…. On each farm, in groves of maples, fountain pools overflow onto carpets of fresh mint…. Elzeard Bouffier died peacefully in his sleep in 1947 at the hospice in Banon.”

Giono published his first novel in 1929. He wrote The Man Who Planted Trees in 1950 and sent it to a magazine as a “most extraordinary person I have ever known” submission, but it was rejected. Like Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree and Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle, The Man Who Planted Trees is believed by countless people whose hearts are warmed by sentimental eco-fables.