“For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years. If this performance is devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is unparalleled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and that, in addition, it has left its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.”
This is the beginning of a story by Jean Giono, simply titled The Man Who Planted Trees (in French: L'homme qui plantait des arbres). After losing his son and wife, a shepherd named Elzéard Bouffier moves to a remote and barren area to tend sheep. Seeing the bleak surroundings, this solitary soul resolves to devote his life to planting trees – one hundred trees each day. He does so for thirty-seven years, and at the end of his days a forest of breathtaking beauty is unfolded, and a community of humans and animals around him come back to life.
Since its first publication in a magazine six decades ago, this simple story of one man’s devoted spirit has inspired reforestation efforts around the world, such as the work of Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the founder of the Green Belt Movement of Kenya, and the work of Andy Lipkis, the founder of the TreePeople of Los Angeles and the author of a guidebook, The Simple Act of Planting a Tree: A Citizen Foresters’ Guide to Healing Your Neighborhood, Your City and Your World.
In many parts of our planet April is the month of planting trees. It is in April that we have the Arbor Day (from Latin arbor – tree). The name of the month itself, although of uncertain origins, may have been derived from the Latin verb aperire – to open, in reference to the opening of buds and blossoms at this season. It may have also come down to us from the name of Aphrodite (in Greek: Αφροδίτη – foam-born) – the divinity of love, the Greek equivalent of Roman Venus.
It is in an acient Roman province, called Provence, that the events of The Man Who Planted Trees take place, and the time period is the first half of the twentieth century. Yet, the setting could be anywhere, anytime, because Elzéard Bouffier is a fictional character. And yet, the mark that this literary creation has left upon our planet is unmistakable and perhaps closer to us than we might think. It may be a gift to us carefully enveloped within the gentle wind we call air, and he still continues planting trees through the hands of readers who are inspired by the story.
In writing the story, Giono himself was inspired by the works of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, as well as Don Quixote, his favorite literary hero. He declined any royalties from the text, and granted free use for distributing and translating the story.
The Man Who Planted Trees has been translated into a number of languages, and thirty-three years after its first publication, it was also made into a charming Academy awarded animated film by Frédéric Back. The story was first published in English by Vogue, and was originally titled “The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness.”