The Shepherd Who Planted Forests

 

Myth, legend, fable may sometimes drive home a truth with greater force than direct instruction and well-meant practical advice. One man, the writer Jean Giono, may have done more to make people appreciate trees than a dozen handbooks. In his wonderful, poetic, practical evocation of the creation of Elzeard Bouffier, a simple shepherd who, single-handed and over a long life planted woodland after woodland where previously had been only rock and scrub, he created a figure who, where previously had ever existed, could almost be said to have done for trees what St Francis did for birds. In telling the story of this remarkable character, Giono wishes to make people love trees, or, more correctly, to make people love planting trees. Yet there never was an Elzeard Bouffier.

Giono was commissioned to write an article in a series in an American magazine on "The most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met," according to his daughter. First reception of the manuscript was enthusiastic. Then they turned it down flat. Research had shown that there never was an Elzeard Bouffier, there were no plantations of oaks that could have been his work, no villages restored to life by the advent of the trees "in the uplands of the ancient region where the Alps extend into Provence" as Giono had written.

But in spirit, it is not only thoroughly believable - it is what ought to have happened. Maybe it has, since Giono's day. If one American magazine turned it down, another, Vogue published it under the title "The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness." The copy to hand is a slim paperback published by Peter Owen, London. This is the 10th impression since 1989. Brilliantly illustrated by Michael McCurdy. The Harvill Press, also of London, has a very neat and also splendidly illustrated edition. The artist: Barry Brockway.

Then, too, a friend brought back one from America from the Chelsea Green Publishing Company. And Modern Languages Ltd of 39 Westland Row, Dublin sent in a copy of an even smaller out colour-illustrated version: "L'homme qui plantait des arbres. It is a beautifully told story. Giono was a considerable writer. And the French edition (Gallimard) seems to contain the germ of the whole. A note here tells us that when Giono was a small boy, he and his father, in season would take walks, carrying acorns in their pockets, which they planted by poking holes in the ground with their walking sticks, in the hope that they would grow into superb oaks.