19 FEBRUARY 2001

Make what you will of this inspiring story ...

The Man who Planted Acorns

About forty years ago I was taking a long trip on foot over mountain heights quite unknown to tourists in that region where the Alps thrust down into Provence. All this, at the time I embarked upon my long walk through these deserted regions, was barren and colorless land. Nothing grew there but wild lavender. After three days walking I found myself in the midst of unparalleled desolation. I camped near the vestiges of an abandoned village. I had run out of water the day before. These clustered houses although in ruins, like an old wasp’s nest, suggested that there must once have been a spring or well here. There was indeed a spring, but it was dry. The tiny chapel with its crumbling steeple stood about like the houses and chapels in living villages, but all life had vanished.

The wind blew with unendurable ferocity. I had to move my camp. After five hour’s walking I had still not found water and there was nothing to give me hope of finding any. I thought I glimpsed in the distance a small black silhouette, upright and took it for a solitary tree. It was a shepherd. Thirty sheep were lying about him on the baking earth.

He gave me a drink from his watergourd, and a little later took me to his cottage in a fold of the plain. He lived in a real house built of stone that bore plain evidence of how his own efforts had reclaimed the ruin he had found there on his arrival. It was understood from the first that I should spend the night there.

The shepherd went to fetch a small sack and poured out a heap of acorns on the table. He began to inspect them with great concentration, separating the good from the bad. When he had set aside a large enough pile of good acorns, he counted them out by tens. When he had selected one hundred perfect acorns he stopped and went to bed. There was peace in being with this man. The next day I asked if I might rest here a day. He found it quite natural. He opened the pen and led his flocks to pasture. Before leaving he plunged his sack of acorns into a pail of water.

I noticed how he carried for a stick an iron rod as thick as my thumb and about a yard and a half long. Resting myself by walking, I followed a path parallel to his. His pasture was in a valley. He left the little flock in charge of the dog and climbed towards where I stood. He climbed to the top of the ridge about a hundred yards away. There he began thrusting his iron rod into the earth, making a hole in which he planted an acorn; he then refilled the hole. He was planting an oak tree. On inquiry I discovered that the land was not his and he was not interested in finding out whose it was. For three years he had been planting trees out in this wilderness. He had planted 100 000. Of these 20 000 had sprouted. Of this 20 000 he still expected to lose about half to rodents or the unpredictable designs of Providence. There remained 10 000 to grow where nothing had grown before.

That was when I began to wonder about the age of this man. Fifty-five he told me. His name was Elzaeard Bouffier. He had once had a farm in the lowlands. He had lost his only son then his wife. He had withdrawn into solitude, where his pleasure was to live leisurely with his lambs and his dog. It was his opinion that this land was drying for want of trees. He had added that, having no very pressing business of his own, he had resolved to remedy this state of affairs. I told him that in thirty years his 10 000 oaks would be magnificent. He answered quite simply that if God granted him life, in thirty years he would have planted so many more that these 10 000 would be like a drop of water in the ocean. Besides he was now studying the reproduction of beech trees and had a nursery of seedlings grown from beech-nuts near his cottage.

The next day we parted. The following year came the war of 1914, in which I was involved for the next five years. To tell the truth the thing itself had made no impression upon me; I had considered it as a hobby and forgotten it. The war over, I again took the road to the barren lands. The countryside had not changed. Since the day before, I had begun to think again of the shepherd tree planter. I had seen too many men die during those five years not to imagine easily that Elzeard Bouffier was dead. 

He was not dead. As a matter of fact he was extremely spry. He had changed jobs. Now he had only four sheep, but instead, 100 beehives. He had got rid of the sheep because they threatened his young trees. For he told me (and I saw for myself), the war had disturbed him not at all. He had impertubably continued to plant.

The oaks of 1910 were then ten years old and taller than either of us. It was an impressive spectacle. I was literally speechless and as he did not talk, we spent the whole day walking in silence through his forest in three sections, it measured 11 kilometres in length and three kilometres at its greatest width. When you remember that all this had sprung from the hands and soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understand that men could be as effectual as God in realms other than that of destruction. He had pursued his plan and beech trees as high as my shoulder, spreading out as far as the eye could reach, confirmed it. He showed me handsome clumps of birch planted five years before. He had set them out in all the valleys where he guessed, rightly, that there was moisture almost at the surface of the ground.

Creation seemed to come about in a sort of chain reaction. He did not worry about it; he was determinedly pursuing his task in all its simplicity; but as we went back towards the village I saw water flowing in brooks that had been dry since the memory of man. The wind too, scattered seeds. As the water reappeared, so there reappeared willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, flowers and a certain purpose in being alive. But the transformation took place so gradually that it became part of the pattern without causing any astonishment. That is why no-one meddled with Elzeard Bouffier’s work. If he had been detected he would have had opposition. He was undetectable. Who in the villages or in the administration could have dreamed of such perseverance in a magnificent generosity?

To have anything like a precise 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 speech. Or perhaps that he saw no need for it. Some years later he received a visit from a forest ranger who notified him of an order against lighting fires out of doors for fear of endangering the growth of this natural forest. It was the first time, the man told him naively, that he had ever heard of a forest growing of its own accord. At that time Bouffier was about to plant beeches at a spot some twelve kilometres from his cottage.

In order to avoid travelling back and forth, for he was then seventy-five, he planned to build a stone cabin right at the plantation. The next year he did so. The following year a whole delegation came from the government to examine the ‘natural forest’. Fortunately nothing was done except the only helpful thing: the whole forest was placed under the protection of the state. For it was impossible not to be captivated by the beauty of those young trees in the fullness of health.

A friend of mine was among the forestry officers of the delegation. To him I explained the mystery. One day the following week we went together to see Elzeard Bouffier. We found him hard at work. In the direction from which we had come the slopes were covered with trees 20 to 25 feet tall. I remembered how the land had looked; a desert... Peaceful, regular toil, the vigorous mountain air, frugality and above all, serenity in the spirit had endowed this old man with awe-inspiring health. He was one of God’s athletes. I wondered how many more acres he was going to cover with trees. I saw Elzeard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945. He was then 87. In 1913 this hamlet of ten or twelve houses had three inhabitants. Everything was changed. Even the air. A gentle breeze was blowing, laden with scents. A sound like water came from the mountains, it was the wind in the forest; most amazing of all, I heard the actual sound of water falling into a pool.

Hope had returned. Ruins had been cleared away, dilapidated walls torn down and five houses restored. Now there were 28 inhabitants. The new houses, freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens where vegetables grew in orderly confusion. It has taken only the eight years since then for the whole countryside to grow with health and prosperity. On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms testifying to a happy and comfortable life. The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again. Their waters have been channeled. On each farm in groves of maples, fountain pools overflow onto carpets of fresh mint. Little by little the villages have been rebuilt. More than 10 000 people owe their happiness to Elzeard Bouffier.


Jean Giono


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