by Julie Z. Russo 

 

I recently served as a substitute teacher in a high school French class in Raleigh. The teacher had left her post permanently for sunnier climes perhaps in part due to the draftiness in the modular trailer where she taught--trailers being a regular feature in public schools as the number of students exceeds the brick and mortar for classrooms.

The teacher had generously left a neat stack of assignments for students, including the short story L’Homme qui Plantait des Arbres ( “The Man who Planted Trees”) by Jean Giono. Giono (1895-1970), a prolific and revered French writer, who came of age during Europe’s 20th century war years, served as an infantryman beginning in 1914 during World War I and then was incarcerated for pacifist resistance during World War II.

As a reminder of the delicate political balancing act separating peace from war more than 100 years later, this high school French class was held in a modular unit alongside an ROTC class with more than 30 Army recruits dressed in uniform as if prepared for active duty in the midst of taking typical college preparatory electives.

Few of the intermediate level students in this French class had heard of Giono or the lavender fields of Provence cloistered in the valley at the heels of the Alps in the south of France. My rudimentary map on the whiteboard did little to stir students’ imagination as we wrestled with the vocabulary and grammar of the first paragraphs of the story, but they had identified the protagonist of the story — un berger (a shepherd) and d’un trou naturel (a deep natural well) with pure water that provided thirst quenching relief to a young man traveling by foot through a remote and barren region of France in 1910.

 

The profundity of this story, while not apparent during the course of our 50-minutes of instruction, was awe-inspiring days later when school was cancelled due to a snowstorm that blanketed the region in a few inches of icy frost in what will likely be the only snow this winter – a troubling hint of a warming planet. While my French substitute teaching assignment was cancelled, I spent a spellbinding morning rereading “The Man who Planted Trees,"  a parable with religious overtones that is just as relevant to our day and age as it had been when Giono wrote it in 1953. 

 

In the story, the author recollects his solitary travel by foot as a 20-year-old encountering a lone shepherd who rescues him from the parched landscape bringing him to the spring that sustains the man and his flock of sheep. The young man is provided sustenance and lodging by the shepherd within the walls of his stone house, and for a few days follows the shepherd as he goes about the business of planting hundreds of acorns in the soil. 

 

For three years he had been planting trees in this wilderness. He had planted one hundred thousand. Of the hundred thousand, twenty thousand had sprouted. Of the twenty thousand he still expected to lose about half, to rodents or to the unpredictable designs of Providence. There remained ten thousand oak trees to grow where nothing had grown before,” Giono wrote.  The author estimated that the shepherd-tree planter was about 55 years old at the time—ancient in the eyes of a young man on the brink of adulthood and enlisting in a war that would ultimately cost the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians alike. Giono recalls departing from the shepherd and thinking little of him until years after the war was over when needing the tranquility and restorative powers of the countryside he departed once more for the south of France. 

The author would make two more trips to visit the shepherd named Eleazar Boufard—the first time directly after World War I when he discovered Boufard and his newly planted saplings alive and well. At the time, the author recollects telling Boufard that in 30 years his ten thousand oaks would be a magnificent forest, and Boufard replied that if God granted him life these thousands of trees would be like a drop of water in the ocean. The trees had emerged as a grove with hundreds of saplings now well above the shoulders of the men. 

In 1945, the author sought Eleazar Boufard once more, imagining that the old man could have easily died during World War II, and his trees sacrificed for providing fuel in the war effort. Instead he found the shepherd as vital as ever, with expanded designs for planting more diverse trees having lived in an area remote enough from industrial rail lines. By this time, the Forest Service had discovered Boufard’s secret well-spring and the magical forest that emerged from this one man’s efforts. The newly forested region was placed under the protection of the Forest Service with charcoal fires strictly prohibited. 

“When you remembered that all this had sprung from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understood that humans could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction,” wrote Giono, comparing Boufard to a modern day Lazarus.

“The war just finished had not yet allowed the full blooming of life, but Lazarus was out of the tomb. On the lower slopes of the mountain I saw little fields of barley and rye; deep in the narrow valleys the meadows were turning green.”

Boufard’s forest created an ecosystem that brought moisture back to the land, allowing other plants and animals to flourish. What was once a sparsely populated and bitter landscape was now a land of Canaan for the young and old alike with a vibrancy that had not existed prior to Boufard’s time. 

This parable for our times is a reminder that we all have the capacity to participate in creation in order to support the well-being of the planet and each other. The generosity of one person, acting without egotism and without a desire to be compensated, provided a visible gift to the world.