In an era of systematic environmental destruction, Jean Giono’s story praises human generosity and inspires the rediscovery of creativity and sustainability

Jean Giono, The Man Who Planted Trees

Published 2015 by Harvill Secker, a Penguin Random House Company (first published 1953), 56p


To see a human being reveal really exceptional qualities one must be able to observe his activities over many years. If these activities are completely unselfish; if the idea motivating them is unique in its magnanimity; if it is quite certain they have never looked for any reward; and if in addition they have left visible traces on the world – then one may say, without fear of error, that one is in the presence of an unforgettable character.

In 1910 a man went in a long journey on foot in Provence, France. He reached a monotonous moorland with wild lavender. The village looked desolated; there was no life anywhere. Running out of water the man was happy to encounter a shepherd who offered him food and shelter.

Intrigued by the lonely life of the shepherd the narrator spent some time in Provence. He found out that his host’s name was Elzéard Bouffier and after he had lost his wife and son moved into the Alps to be alone, enjoying an unhurried existence with his sheep and his dog. Seeing this part of the country deserted Bouffier had decided to put things right and plant trees. He selected acorns, made holes in the ground and planted thousands of trees.

The narrator returned periodically to see Bouffier. None of the two World Wars had affected the area as it was isolated. The landscape had completely changed, became vital and it was placed under official protection. Bouffier continued to plant trees for more than forty decades.

Peaceful and regular work, a frugal way of life, the bracing air of the uplands, and above all his tranquility of mind – all these had given the old man an almost awesome good health.

Elzéard Bouffier gave meaning to his existence by planting the trees. Devoted to his mission he brought to life a deserted village and contributed to the wealth of nature . He died peacefully and almost anonymously although more than ten thousand people who moved there owed him their happiness.

I think it would be an exercise for the soul to read the story not as a fiction novella but as a portrait of extraordinary people who are not afraid of challenges and who believe in their creative instincts.

When I reflect on the fact that one man, with only his own simple physical and moral resources, was able to bring forth out of the desert this land of Canaan, I can’t help feeling the human condition in general is admirable, in spite of everything. And when I count up all the constancy, magnanimity, perseverance and generosity it took to achieve those results, I’m filled with enormous respect for the old, uneducated peasant who was able, unaided, to carry through to a successful conclusion  an achievement worthy of God.

The Man Who Planted Trees was adapted as an animation by Frédéric Back in 1987 and won the Academy Award for the Best Animated Short Film.


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