The Man Who Planted Trees

By Jean Giono

I don’t think it would be trite to say that Jean Giono’s allegorical short story, The Man Who Planted Trees speaks to us today more than at any time since it was written in 1953.

In 2018 the United Nations IPCC warned that we only have twelve years to mitigate and reduce the growth in emissions and keep global warming rises to below 1.5%. Above that we face catastrophic challenges to our lives and wellbeing. A year later in 2019 the UN IPBES announced equally dire predictions about the huge loss of biodiversity and the extensive rise of species extinctions worldwide. Our planet is currently undergoing its Sixth Mass Extinction. All of this has come about as a result of human action.

The main character of Giono’s book is Elzeard Bouffier, a shepherd who plants trees day after day, year after year, in an arid, barren Provencal landscape. Starting with thousands of acorns he essentially re-wilds his whole area, with no thought for self gain, completely unaware of the tribulations that the outside world have imposed upon themselves, including world war. Bouffier believed that the land was dying for want of trees and he set out to change that. He used his own personal agency to make his small part of the world a better place. Over time the climate in his hills changed, rivers appeared, the vitality of the ecosystems increased, wildlife re-populated.

There are so many lessons that a contemporary reading can take from this story. Everything from the value of the simple planting of trees for carbon sequestration and biodiversity; the worth of the agency of one person to affect their own locale; the benefits that the currently popular idea of re-wilding our landscapes could provide. Elzeard Bouffier even removed his sheep when he realised that they were detrimental to the regrowth of his forest. Today in the UK, sheep farming is widely criticised for its contribution to the creation of our upland wastelands.

For me the most pertinent message lies in one of the alternative names that Giono gave to his story: The Man who Planted Hope and Reaped Happiness. We are increasingly starting to understand that our wellbeing is tied to the natural world not only in terms of the life-giving services that it provides but also through our personal interconnections with nature that much of modern life neglects. There is a metaphysical element that we neglect. The hope that planting a small acorn gives can provide so much more than physical and monetary value. I am sure that Giono recognised this when, after being rejected by his American publishers, he gave the story away for free and never earnt a dime from it.

The short time that this wonderfully simple but at the same time many layered story takes to read is most definitely dwarfed by the magnitude of the lessons that it offers.