European Graduate School EGS

Arts, Health and Society Division

Expressive Arts Blog

The Man Who Planted Trees

by admin on October 9, 2011

The Man Who Planted Trees (French title „L’homme qui plantait des arbres“),  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 man who remains anonymous throughout. 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 landscape 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 1920, 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 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 Bouffier every year. Bouffier is no longer a shepherd, because he is worried about the sheep affecting his young trees, and has become a bee keeper instead. Over four decades, 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 is vibrant with life and is peacefully settled. The valley receives official protection after the First World War.
The narrator visits the now very old Bouffier one last time in 1945. In a hospice in Banon, in 1947, the man who planted trees peacefully passes away.

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 the tale is part autobiographical. Certainly, 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.”

Real-life people in other countries have produced similar effects. Abdul Karim in India created a forest out of “nothing” over a period of 19 years, using the same method as Bouffier. An organization called Trees for the Future has assisted more than 170,000 families, in 6,800 villages of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, to plant over 35 million trees. Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, founded the Green Belt Movement which planted over 30 million trees to restore the Kenyan environment. Shanghai Roots & Shoots, a division of the Jane Goodall Institute launched The Million Tree Project in Kulun Qi, Inner Mongolia to plant one million trees to stop desertification and alleviate global warming.
(sources: Wikipedia)

The book was adapted as an animated short film by Frédéric Back and released in 1987. It earned a number of awards including an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

The Man Who Planted Trees – The Film


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