Friday, August 31, 2007
The man who planted trees: The Story of Elzéard Bouffier.
The Man Who Planted Trees (French title L'homme qui plantait des arbres), also known as "The Story of Elzéard Bouffier"; "The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met"; and "The Man who Planted Hope and Reaped Happiness" is an allegorical tale by French author Jean Giono, published in 1953.
It tells the story of one shepherd's long and successful singlehanded effort to re-forest a desolate valley in the foothills of the Alps near Provence throughout the first half of the 20th century.
The tale is narrated by a twenty-year-old man who remains anonymous throughout (although it has been suggested the narrator may perhaps be the author Jean Giono, there is no evidence for this). The story begins in the year 1910 when this young man is undertaking a lone hiking trip through Provence, France, and into the Alps, enjoying the relatively unspoiled wilderness.
The narrator runs out of water in a treeless, desolate valley where only wild lavender grows and there is no trace of civilization except old, empty crumbling buildings. The narrator finds only a dried up well, but is saved by a middle-aged shepherd who takes him to a spring he knows of.
Curious about this man, and why he has chosen such a lonely life, the narrator stays with him for a time. The shepherd, after being widowed, has decided to restore the ruined ecosystem of the isolated and largely abandoned valley by single-handedly cultivating a forest, tree by tree. The shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, makes holes in the ground with his curling pole and drops into the holes acorns that he has collected from many miles away.
The narrator leaves the shepherd and returns home, and later fights in the First World War. In 1915, shell-shocked and depressed after the war, the man returns. He is surprised to see young saplings of all forms taking root in the valley, and new streams running through it where the shepherd has made natural dams higher up in the mountain. The narrator makes a full recovery in the peace and beauty of the regrowing valley, and continues to visit Elzéard Bouffier every year. Elzéard Bouffier is no longer a shepherd because he is worried about the sheep affecting his young trees, and has taken up a new profession. He is now a bee keeper.
Over four decades, Elzéard Bouffier continues to plant trees and the valley is turned into a kind of Garden of Eden. By the end of the story, the valley has a vibrant ecosystem and is peacefully settled. The valley receives official protection after the Second World War (of course the authorities mistakenly believe that the rapid growth of this forest is a bizarre natural phenomenon as they are unaware of Bouffier's selfless deeds) and more than 10,000 people move there, all of them unknowingly owing their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier. The narrator tells one of his friends in the government the truth about the natural forest, and the friend also helps protect the forest.
The narrator visits the now very old Elzéard Bouffier one last time in 1945, at the end of World War II. In a hospice in Banon, in 1947 the man who planted trees peacefully passes away.
A true story?
The story itself is so touching that many readers have believed that Elzéard Bouffier was a genuine historical figure and that the narrator of the story was a young Jean Giono himself, and that so the tale is part autobiographical. Certainly, Jean Giono lived during this time. While he was alive, Giono enjoyed allowing people to believe that the story was real, and considered it as a tribute to his skill. His daughter, Aline Giono, described it as "a family story for a long time". However, Giono himself explained in a 1957 letter to an official of the city of Digne:
Sorry to disappoint you, but Elzéard Bouffier is a fictional person. The goal was to make trees likeable, or more specifically, make planting trees likeable
In the letter, he describes how the book was translated in a multitude of languages, distributed freely, and therefore was a success. He adds that, although "[i]t does not bring me a cent", it is one of the texts of which he is most proud.
Some people claim that this story is true, and that people in other countries have produced similar effects. For example, a man called Abdul Karim had apparently created a forest out of "nothing" over 19 years, using the same method as Bouffier.  An organization called "Trees for the Future" claimed to have assisted more than 170,000 families, in 6,800 villages of Asia, Africa and the Americas, to plant over 35 million trees.  The character of Bouffier also has some similarity to the legendary early 19th century American tree planter Johnny Appleseed. Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, founded the Greenbelt Movement which planted 30 million trees to restore the Kenyan environment.
An animated adaptation of the story was produced by Frédéric Back in 1987. This 30 minute short film is narrated by Christopher Plummer (English version, also available with a French narrator) and produced by Radio-Canada. It won the Academy Award for best animated short film, as well as several other awards that year. It is available on a Region 1 (American) DVD, either on its own or with other animated films directed by Frédéric Back.
The film has for a long time been topping IMDb's top short list, and therefore recognized by many as the best short film ever created (Yuriy Norshteyn's Tale of Tales, twice voted by a large international panel to be the world's best animated film, does not have enough votes on IMDB to qualify for the list).
In 1994 it was voted #44 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field.
In 2006 it was adapted for the stage and puppets by Richard Medrington of Puppet State Theatre Company in Edinburgh, Scotland. The show has been performed over 160 times since July 2006, including a sell out run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Posted by s.a.