Neil’s mum had a big birthday a few weeks ago, and asked people coming to her party not to bring gifts, but instead to bring a book that meant something to them. It was such a lovely idea, and now means that she has a small library from friends and family, with a bookplate in the front cover of each title explaining its importance to the giver. When we were looking through them all recently, Neil spotted a thin book called The Man Who Planted Trees, beautifully published by The Harvill Press, which he thought I might like. One look at the quote from Henry Miller on the back, the description of the story, and the wood engravings by Harry Brockway and I was determined to track down a copy for myself.
It is a gorgeous story of about 4,000 words, which takes no time at all to read. As a young man, the narrator tells us that he found himself stranded in a bare and monotonous region of France, desperate for food and water. The area is a wasteland; villages are largely deserted; angry charcoal burners are the only inhabitants; There are epidemics of suicide and many cases of madness, usually homicidal. He stumbles towards what he thinks is a tree only to discover that the figure is in fact a shepherd called Elzéard Bouffier, who offers him help. Elzéard doesn’t say a great deal but takes the narrator back to his perfectly appointed little house, where the wind in the tiles made a sound like the sea on the shore. During the course of the evening, the young man looks on as the shepherd carefully selects one hundred perfect acorns. The following day, the shepherd leaves his flock to graze and plants the acorns in the ground. The land is not his, he says, and he is not interested in the views of the people who may own it and who have abandoned it entirely. Instead, having lost his family and intent on enjoying a quiet life with his animals, it struck him that this part of the country was dying for a lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right.
The young man is taken away from the region for the next five years, as the First World War engulfs Europe. When he finally returns, it is to see a carpet of oak trees covering the landscape, and a sea of birch plantations where the shepherd had fancied there would be water. We are told that this new life has kick-started a chain-reaction – water has returned to ancient brooks, and seeds have travelled on the wind, creating meadows, gardens, flowers, some reason for living. Gradually the authorities notice the new woodland, and assume it must be “natural”. Delegations are sent to inspect it, and forest wardens put in place. Happily, the narrator is able to ensure that bureaucracy does not interfere with the shepherd’s work, and the trees continue to flourish, inviting new life to the once-barren region.
What a timely story for anyone with an interest in our country’s woodland, and the threats to our countryside. What Jean Giono shows so beautifully with his simple parable is life’s connectivity; our reliance on inter-dependences we barely pay heed to; and the happiness to be found in a life spent outdoors. Whether intended or not there is an obvious parallel to be drawn between the wretched charcoal burners and the fossil fuel industry, and it is implied that the barrenness of the landscape at the beginning is the result of human over-exploitation and neglect. In Giono’s story a single man is able to remedy these ills – the shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, is of course entirely fictional, yet since the story was first published people around the world have been desperate to track down the village he repaired and to tell his story. As Giono’s daughter says in the Afterword, for years readers assumed, or wanted to believe, that Bouffier was real.
It put me in mind of two things in particular. The first is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which I have just finished (and will be reviewing shortly!) Towards the end of his fascinating and very readable book, Diamond explains that global power essentially shifted from the Fertile Crescent (the cradle of modern civilisation) to Europe because, They [ the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean societies] committed ecological suicide by destroying their own resource base….Northern and western Europe has been spared this fate, not because its inhabitants have been wiser but because they have had the good luck to live in a more robust environment with higher rainfall, in which vegetation regrows quickly. To summarise that very crudely, if a society undermines its environment to the extent that agriculture become unsustainable, it is essentially guaranteeing the loss of its political importance. We may well live in a more robust climate, but that does not mean that soil erosion, the clearance of woodland and climate change will not eventually put us in a similar position. The parable of the tree-growing shepherd is compelling not just because of its charm, but because we want to believe in the fact that someone will have the grace and will-power bring us back from the brink and regenerate our wildlife when we need them to.
Secondly, and as I have mentioned before, the Woodland Trust is campaigning about this very issue at the moment with the help of its excellent video about the NPPF. Not only do we not have the benefit of an Elzéard Bouffier planting new forests, we are barely able to protect what we already have. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pu3zT3oYJ-M In a gentle, poetic way, Giono help us to remember why that matters.
Henry Miller described this little story as the song of the world. It is certainly very beautiful, full of hope, and a welcome reminder of the way in which we ought to treat the world around us.