Thursday, December 29, 2011

'The man who planted trees'

I wrote the piece below for this space 20 years ago, in 1991 (with a different title). I share this again to honor those who have been guarding our forests with their lives, in memory of the thousands (almost 2,000 dead and some 1,000 still missing) who perished in the Dec. 16 flash floods, landslides and log slides that roared into parts of Northern Mindanao and the Visayas, and in solidarity with the grieving, hungry, homeless and hopeless.

Tropical Storm “Sendong” is not entirely to blame. Earth watchers have been crying out in the wilderness, subsisting on the proverbial locusts and wild honey, unheeded in their own woebegone country.

While re-working this piece I was listening to the Enya album, “The Memory of Trees” and thinking of all the real Christmas trees out there that have protected us. I pray for brightness on the road ahead, “charged with the grandeur of God.”
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When you remembered that all this had sprung from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understood that men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction. —from “The Man Who Planted Trees”

A story I read as a little girl and which I remember very well to this day (in fact the copy is still preserved at home in the province) is that of Johnny Appleseed. I remember his saucepan of a cap, his bright eyes and the fistful of apple seeds he strew around wherever he went.
Children keep things in their hearts and remember even when they become adults. After these many years I still remember how good I felt reading that picture story in the Junior Classics Illustrated. How Johnny Appleseed made the bare fields bloom and when he was old, how he marveled at the work of his hands and how he died a happy man and how the birds in the apple trees chirped his name long after he was gone.
I remember as I go over this warm little book which my friend, a farmer, lent to me. The book, “The Man Who Planted Trees,” comes with audio (text and music) which can be played while one is reading the book. Listening and reading—slowly, meditatively—takes 40 minutes. (This is now on YouTube!) The story is by Jean Giono, the illustrations (such exquisite wood engravings) by Michael McCurdy. A noted French writer, Giono has written more than 30 novels. He died in 1970 at 75.

The name of the man who planted trees is Elzeard Bouffier. Giono said the purpose of his story “was to make people love the tree, or more precisely, to make them love planting trees.” Through Giono, we first meet Elzeard Bouffier before the outbreak of the First World War, then when the war is over, then again before the outbreak of the Second World War and finally at the end of it.

Giono, the storyteller, describes where he first met Bouffier: “About 40 years ago I was taking a long trip on foot over mountain heights quite unknown to tourists, in that ancient 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 colorless land. Nothing grew there but wild lavender.”

In this god-forsaken land lived Bouffier, “a man of great simplicity and determination.” Bouffier, who had lost his wife and children, resettled in this desolate place in Southern France. With only his dog and sheep for company, he started his monumental work—planting a hundred acorns every day of his life.
It is Giono who tells us about the transformation of the region—from a once arid vastness into a verdant land bristling with promise. Alone, unaided and in complete anonymity, Bouffier planted and did not allow the cruel wars to interrupt what he was doing.

When Giono goes back after the wars this is what he sees: “Everything was changed. Even the air. Instead of the harsh dry winds that used to attack me, 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. I saw that a fountain had been built, that it flowed freely and—what touched me most—that someone had planted a linden beside it, a linden that must have been four years old, already in full leaf, the incontestable symbol of resurrection.

“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.”

Incidentally, among Giono’s countless works, “The Man Who Planted Trees” was the one that got into trouble with editors. So he sort of gave it away. Said he: “It is one of my stories of which I am the proudest. It does not bring me in one single penny and that is why it has accomplished what it was written for.” It has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

The book (printed on acid-free and recycled paper, of course) is published by Chelsea Green and Global ReLeaf, a group which aims to stop global warming by planting millions of trees. The two groups have put up the yearly Jean Giono Award for the best tree-planting effort by an individual.

Love that tree.

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