The French writer Jean Giono published a short story in 1953, The Man Who Planted Trees. The story begins in France in 1913. The narrator embarks on a walking tour of Provence, passes through a desolate area, sparsely populated by enclaves of desperate people, and encounters the title character, Elzéard Bouffier, a man in his mid-fifties (which seems very old to the young narrator), who leads a solitary life as a shepherd.
As the narrator spends time in the man’s company, he notices that as Bouffier shepherds his flock, he leisurely but intentionally makes narrow holes in the ground with his walking stick and plants acorns. Bouffier says that he has been doing this for three years, and that he reckons he has planted one hundred thousand trees! Asked about his motive, Bouffier replies that “it was his opinion that this land was dying for want of trees,” and that, “…having no very pressing business of his own, he had resolved to remedy this state of affairs.”
Bouffier and the narrator part, but are reunited some years after World War I. The narrator finds that, having been untouched by the war and having continued his work unabated, Bouffier has literally covered the countryside with trees. His work was done obscurely and anonymously and had remained undetected by the increasing number of travelers and new residents of the area. The narrator muses, “Who in the villages or in the administration could have dreamed of such perseverance in a magnificent generosity?”
Years later, as the narrator surveys the area through which he first walked in 1913, he observes, “Counting the former population, unrecognizable now that they live in comfort, more than ten thousand people owe their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier.” He finishes his story thus: “When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable. But when I compute the unfailing greatness of spirit and the tenacity of benevolence that it must have taken to achieve this result, I am taken with an immense respect for that old and unlearned peasant who was able to complete a work worthy of God.”
I first read this story twenty-five years ago, and it has never relinquished its hold on me. The phrases “perseverance in a magnificent generosity” and “the unfailing greatness of spirit and the tenacity of benevolence” call forth in me a desire to keep on moving forward with the things I have been called to do, however circuitous or difficult the path might be.
I was very sad when I realized that The Man Who Planted Trees was a work of fiction! I would have liked to have met Elzéard Bouffier. Perhaps you and I can be real-life examples to one other of perseverance and tenacity. Let’s not grow weary in well-doing, and in due time we will reap a good harvest!