[In order for the character of a human being to reveal
truly exceptional qualities, we must have the good fortune
to observe its action over a long period of years. If this
action is devoid of all selfishness, if the idea that
directs it is one of unqualified generosity, if it is
absolutely certain that it has not sought recompense
anywhere, and if moreover it has left visible marks on the
world, then we are unquestionably dealing with an
The Man Who Planted Trees
by Jean Giono
Translation from French by Peter Doyle
About forty years ago I went on a long hike, through hills absolutely unknown
to tourists, in that very old region where the Alps penetrate into Provence.
This region is bounded to the south-east and south by the middle course of
the Durance, between Sisteron and Mirabeau; to the north by the upper course
of the Drome, from its source down to Die; to the west by the plains of Comtat
Venaissin and the outskirts of Mont Ventoux. It includes all the northern part
of the Departement of Basses-Alpes, the south of Drome and a little enclave of
At the time I undertook my long walk through this deserted region, it consisted
of barren and monotonous lands, at about 1200 to 1300 meters above sea level.
Nothing grew there except wild lavender.
I was crossing this country at its widest part, and after walking for three days,
I found myself in the most complete desolation. I was camped next to the
skeleton of an abandoned village. I had used the last of my water the day
before and I needed to find more. Even though they were in ruins, these houses
all huddled together and looking like an old wasps' nest made me think that
there must at one time have been a spring or a well there. There was indeed a
spring, but it was dry. The five or six roofless houses, ravaged by sun and wind,
and the small chapel with its tumble-down belfry, were arrayed like the houses
and chapels of living villages, but all life had disappeared.
It was a beautiful June day with plenty of sun, but on these shelterless lands,
high up in the sky, the wind whistled with an unendurable brutality. Its
growling in the carcasses of the houses was like that of a wild beast disturbed
during its meal.
I had to move my camp. After five hours of walking, I still hadn't found water,
and nothing gave me hope of finding any. Everywhere there was the same dryness,
the same stiff, woody plants. I thought I saw in the distance a small black
silhouette. On a chance I headed towards it. It was a shepherd. Thirty lambs
or so were resting near him on the scorching ground.
He gave me a drink from his gourd and a little later he led me to his shepherd's
cottage, tucked down in an undulation of the plateau. He drew his water -
excellent - from a natural hole, very deep, above which he had installed a
This man spoke little. This is common among those who live alone, but he seemed
sure of himself, and confident in this assurance, which seemed remarkable in
this land shorn of everything. He lived not in a cabin but in a real house of
stone, from the looks of which it was clear that his own labor had restored the
ruins he had found on his arrival. His roof was solid and water-tight. The wind
struck against the roof tiles with the sound of the sea crashing on the beach.
His household was in order, his dishes washed, his floor swept, his rifle
greased; his soup boiled over the fire; I noticed then that he was also freshly
shaven, that all his buttons were solidly sewn, and that his clothes were mended
with such care as to make the patches invisible.
He shared his soup with me, and when afterwards I offered him my tobacco pouch,
he told me that he didn't smoke. His dog, as silent as he, was friendly without
It had been agreed immediately that I would pass the night there, the closest
village being still more than a day and a half farther on. Furthermore, I
understood perfectly well the character of the rare villages of that region.
There are four or five of them dispersed far from one another on the flanks
of the hills, in groves of white oaks at the very ends of roads passable by
carriage. They are inhabited by woodcutters who make charcoal. They are places
where the living is poor. The families, pressed together in close quarters by a
climate that is exceedingly harsh, in summer as well as in winter, struggle ever
more selfishly against each other. Irrational contention grows beyond all bounds,
fueled by a continuous struggle to escape from that place. The men carry their
charcoal to the cities in their trucks, and then return. The most solid
qualities crack under this perpetual Scottish shower. The women stir up
bitterness. There is competition over everything, from the sale of charcoal to
the benches at church. The virtues fight amongst themselves, the vices fight
amongst themselves, and there is a ceaseless general combat between the vices
and the virtues. On top of all that, the equally ceaseless wind irritates the
nerves. There are epidemics of suicides and numerous cases of insanity, almost
The shepherd, who did not smoke, took out a bag and poured a pile of acorns out
onto the table. He began to examine them one after another with a great deal of
attention, separating the good ones from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I offered to
help him, but he told me it was his own business. Indeed, seeing the care that
he devoted to this job, I did not insist. This was our whole conversation.
When he had in the good pile a fair number of acorns, he counted them out into
packets of ten. In doing this he eliminated some more of the acorns, discarding
the smaller ones and those that that showed even the slightest crack, for he
examined them very closely. When he had before him one hundred perfect acorns he
stopped, and we went to bed.
The company of this man brought me a feeling of peace. I asked him the next
morning if I might stay and rest the whole day with him. He found that perfectly
natural. Or more exactly, he gave me the impression that nothing could disturb
him. This rest was not absolutely necessary to me, but I was intrigued and I
wanted to find out more about this man. He let out his flock and took them to
the pasture. Before leaving, he soaked in a bucket of water the little sack
containing the acorns that he had so carefully chosen and counted.
I noted that he carried as a sort of walking stick an iron rod as thick as his
thumb and about one and a half meters long. I set off like someone out for a
stroll, following a route parallel to his. His sheep pasture lay at the bottom
of a small valley. He left his flock in the charge of his dog and climbed up
towards the spot where I was standing. I was afraid that he was coming to
reproach me for my indiscretion, but not at all : It was his own route and he
invited me to come along with him if I had nothing better to do. He continued
on another two hundred meters up the hill.
Having arrived at the place he had been heading for, he begin to pound his iron
rod into the ground. This made a hole in which he placed an acorn, whereupon he
covered over the hole again. He was planting oak trees. I asked him if the land
belonged to him. He answered no. Did he know whose land it was? He did not know.
He supposed that it was communal land, or perhaps it belonged to someone who did
not care about it. He himself did not care to know who the owners were. In this
way he planted his one hundred acorns with great care.
After the noon meal, he began once more to pick over his acorns. I must have put
enough insistence into my questions, because he answered them. For three years
now he had been planting trees in this solitary way. He had planted one hundred
thousand. Of these one hundred thousand, twenty thousand had come up. He counted
on losing another half of them to rodents and to everything else that is
unpredictable in the designs of Providence. That left ten thousand oaks that
would grow in this place where before there was nothing.
It was at this moment that I began to wonder about his age. He was clearly more
than fifty. Fifty-five, he told me. His name was Elzeard Bouffier. He had owned
a farm in the plains, where he lived most of his life. He had lost his only son,
and then his wife. He had retired into this solitude, where he took pleasure in
living slowly, with his flock of sheep and his dog. He had concluded that this
country was dying for lack of trees. He added that, having nothing more
important to do, he had resolved to remedy the situation.
Leading as I did at the time a solitary life, despite my youth, I knew how to
treat the souls of solitary people with delicacy. Still, I made a mistake. It
was precisely my youth that forced me to imagine the future in my own terms,
including a certain search for happiness. I told him that in thirty years these
ten thousand trees would be magnificent. He replied very simply that, if God
gave him life, in thirty years he would have planted so many other trees that
these ten thousand would be like a drop of water in the ocean.
He had also begun to study the propagation of beeches. and he had near his house
a nursery filled with seedlings grown from beechnuts. His little wards, which he
had protected from his sheep by a screen fence, were growing beautifully. He was
also considering birches for the valley bottoms where, he told me, moisture lay
slumbering just a few meters beneath the surface of the soil.
We parted the next day.
The next year the War of 1914 came, in which I was engaged for five years.
An infantryman could hardly think about trees. To tell the truth, the whole
business hadn't made a very deep impression on me; I took it to be a hobby,
like a stamp collection, and forgot about it.
With the war behind me, I found myself with a small demobilization bonus and
a great desire to breathe a little pure air. Without any preconceived notion
beyond that, I struck out again along the trail through that deserted country.
The land had not changed. Nonetheless, beyond that dead village I perceived in
the distance a sort of gray fog that covered the hills like a carpet. Ever since
the day before I had been thinking about the shepherd who planted trees. "Ten
thousand oaks", I had said to myself, "must really take up a lot of space".
I had seen too many people die during those five years not to be able to imagine
easily the death of Elzeard Bouffier, especially since when a man is twenty he
thinks of a man of fifty as an old codger for whom nothing remains but to die.
He was not dead. In fact, he was very spry. He had changed his job. He only had
four sheep now, but to make up for this he had about a hundred beehives. He had
gotten rid of the sheep because they threatened his crop of trees. He told me
(as indeed I could see for myself) that the war had not disturbed him at all.
He had continued imperturbably with his planting.
The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old and were taller than me and than him.
The spectacle was impressive. I was literally speechless and, as he didn't speak
himself, we passed the whole day in silence, walking through his forest. It was
in three sections, eleven kilometers long overall and, at its widest point,
three kilometers wide. When I considered that this had all sprung from the hands
and from the soul of this one man - without technical aids - it struck me that
men could be as effective as God in domains other than destruction.
He had followed his idea, and the beeches that reached up to my shoulders and
extending as far as the eye could see bore witness to it. The oaks were now good
and thick, and had passed the age where they were at the mercy of rodents; as
for the designs of Providence, to destroy the work that had been created would
henceforth require a cyclone. He showed me admirable stands of birches that
dated from five years ago, that is to say from 1915, when I had been fighting
at Verdun. He had planted them in the valley bottoms where he had suspected,
correctly, that there was water close to the surface. They were as tender as
young girls, and very determined.
This creation had the air, moreover, of working by a chain reaction. He had not
troubled about it; he went on obstinately with his simple task. But, in going
back down to the village, I saw water running in streams that, within living
memory, had always been dry. It was the most striking revival that he had shown
me. These streams had borne water before, in ancient days. Certain of the sad
villages that I spoke of at the beginning of my account had been built on the
sites of ancient Gallo-Roman villages, of which there still remained traces;
archeologists digging there had found fishhooks in places where in more recent
times cisterns were required in order to have a little water.
The wind had also been at work, dispersing certain seeds. As the water
reappeared, so too did willows, osiers, meadows, gardens, flowers, and a certain
reason to live.
But the transformation had taken place so slowly that it had been taken for
granted, without provoking surprise. The hunters who climbed the hills in search
of hares or wild boars had noticed the spreading of the little trees, but they
set it down to the natural spitefulness of the earth. That is why no one had
touched the work of this man. If they had suspected him, they would have tried
to thwart him. But he never came under suspicion : Who among the villagers or
the administrators would ever have suspected that anyone could show such
obstinacy in carrying out this magnificent act of generosity?
Beginning in 1920 I never let more than a year go by without paying a visit
to Elzeard Bouffier. I never saw him waver or doubt, though God alone can tell
when God's own hand is in a thing! I have said nothing of his disappointments,
but you can easily imagine that, for such an accomplishment, it was necessary
to conquer adversity; that, to assure the victory of such a passion, it was
necessary to fight against despair. One year he had planted ten thousand maples.
They all died. The next year, he gave up on maples and went back to beeches,
which did even better than the oaks.
To get a true idea of this exceptional character, one must not forget that he
worked in total solitude; so total that, toward the end of his life, he lost
the habit of talking. Or maybe he just didn't see the need for it.
In 1933 he received the visit of an astonished forest ranger. This functionary
ordered him to cease building fires outdoors, for fear of endangering this
natural forest. It was the first time, this naive man told him, that a forest
had been observed to grow up entirely on its own. At the time of this incident,
he was thinking of planting beeches at a spot twelve kilometers from his house.
To avoid the coming and going - because at the time he was seventy-five years
old - he planned to build a cabin of stone out where he was doing his planting.
This he did the next year.
In 1935, a veritable administrative delegation went to examine this "natural
forest". There was an important personage from Waters and Forests, a deputy, and
some technicians. Many useless words were spoken. It was decided to do something,
but luckily nothing was done, except for one truly useful thing : placing the
forest under the protection of the State and forbidding anyone from coming there
to make charcoal. For it was impossible not to be taken with the beauty of these
young trees in full health. And the forest exercised its seductive powers even
on the deputy himself.
I had a friend among the chief foresters who were with the delegation. I
explained the mystery to him. One day the next week, we went off together
to look for Elzeard Bouffier, We found him hard at work, twenty kilometers
away from the place where the inspection had taken place.
This chief forester was not my friend for nothing. He understood the value of
things. He knew how to remain silent. I offered up some eggs I had brought with
me as a gift. We split our snack three ways, and then passed several hours in
mute contemplation of the landscape.
The hillside whence we had come was covered with trees six or seven meters high.
I remembered the look of the place in 1913 : a desert ... The peaceful and
steady labor, the vibrant highland air, his frugality, and above all, the
serenity of his soul had given the old man a kind of solemn good health.
He was an athlete of God. I asked myself how many hectares he had yet to
cover with trees.
Before leaving, my friend made a simple suggestion concerning certain species
of trees to which the terrain seemed to be particularly well suited. He was not
insistent. "For the very good reason", he told me afterwards, "that this fellow
knows a lot more about this sort of thing than I do". After another hour of
walking, this thought having travelled along with him, he added : "He knows a
lot more about this sort of thing than anybody - and he has found a jolly good
way of being happy !"
It was thanks to the efforts of this chief forester that the forest was
protected, and with it, the happiness of this man. He designated three forest
rangers for their protection, and terrorized them to such an extent that they
remained indifferent to any jugs of wine that the woodcutters might offer as
The forest did not run any grave risks except during the war of 1939. Then
automobiles were being run on wood alcohol, and there was never enough wood.
They began to cut some of the stands of the oaks of 1910, but the trees stood
so far from any useful road that the enterprise turned out to be bad from a
financial point of view, and was soon abandoned. The shepherd never knew
anything about it. He was thirty kilometers away, peacefully continuing
his task, as untroubled by the war of 1939 as he had been of the war of 1914.
I saw Elzeard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945. He was then
eighty-seven years old. I had once more set off along my trail through the
wilderness, only to find that now, in spite of the shambles in which the war
had left the whole country, there was a motor coach running between the valley
of the Durance and the mountain. I set down to this relatively rapid means of
transportation the fact that I no longer recognized the landmarks I knew from my
earlier visits. It also seemed that the route was taking me through entirely new
places. I had to ask the name of a village to be sure that I was indeed passing
through that same region, once so ruined and desolate. The coach set me down at
Vergons. In 1913, this hamlet of ten or twelve houses had had three inhabitants.
They were savages, hating each other, and earning their living by trapping :
Physically and morally, they resembled prehistoric men . The nettles devoured
the abandoned houses that surrounded them. Their lives were without hope, it was
only a matter of waiting for death to come : a situation that hardly predisposes
one to virtue.
All that had changed, even to the air itself. In place of the dry, brutal gusts
that had greeted me long ago, a gentle breeze whispered to me, bearing sweet
odors. A sound like that of running water came from the heights above : It was
the sound of the wind in the trees. And most astonishing of all, I heard the
sound of real water running into a pool. I saw that they had built a fountain,
that it was full of water, and what touched me most, that next to it they had
planted a lime-tree that must be at least four years old, already grown thick,
an incontestable symbol of resurrection.
Furthermore, Vergons showed the signs of labors for which hope is a requirement
: Hope must therefore have returned. They had cleared out the ruins, knocked
down the broken walls, and rebuilt five houses. The hamlet now counted
twenty-eight inhabitants, including four young families. The new houses, freshly
plastered, were surrounded by gardens that bore, mixed in with each other but
still carefully laid out, vegetables and flowers, cabbages and rosebushes, leeks
and gueules-de-loup, celery and anemones. It was now a place where anyone would
be glad to live.
From there I continued on foot. The war from which we had just barely emerged
had not permitted life to vanish completely, and now Lazarus was out of his tomb.
On the lower flanks of the mountain, I saw small fields of barley and rye; in
the bottoms of the narrow valleys, meadowlands were just turning green.
It has taken only the eight years that now separate us from that time for the
whole country around there to blossom with splendor and ease. On the site of
the ruins I had seen in 1913 there are now well-kept farms, the sign of a happy
and comfortable life. The old springs, fed by rain and snow now that are now
retained by the forests, have once again begun to flow. The brooks have been
channelled. Beside each farm, amid groves of maples, the pools of fountains are
bordered by carpets of fresh mint. Little by little, the villages have been
rebuilt. Yuppies have come from the plains, where land is expensive, bringing
with them youth, movement, and a spirit of adventure. Walking along the roads
you will meet men and women in full health, and boys and girls who know how to
laugh, and who have regained the taste for the traditional rustic festivals.
Counting both the previous inhabitants of the area, now unrecognizable from
living in plenty, and the new arrivals, more than ten thousand persons owe their
happiness to Elzeard Bouffier.
When I consider that a single man, relying only on his own simple physical and
moral resources, was able to transform a desert into this land of Canaan, I am
convinced that despite everything, the human condition is truly admirable. But
when I take into account the constancy, the greatness of soul, and the selfless
dedication that was needed to bring about this transformation, I am filled with
an immense respect for this old, uncultured peasant who knew how to bring about
a work worthy of God.
Elzeard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the hospice in Banon.
[The introduction to the original French text quotes a 1957 letter
from the author to a Conservator of Water and Forests in which Giono
explains that this lovely story is a work of fiction. It is posted on
the site of a project in the south of France called The Arboretum. The
website with the French original text, hosted in Switzerland, is at