“The Man Who Planted Trees” – Chapter 5
Beginning in 1920 I never let more than a year go by without paying a visit to Elzéard Bouffier. I never saw him waver or doubt, though God alone can tell when God’s own hand is in a thing! I have said nothing of his disappointments, but you can easily imagine that, for such an accomplishment, it was necessary to conquer adversity; that, to assure the victory of such a passion, it was necessary to fight against despair. One year he had planted ten thousand maples. They all died. The next year, he gave up on maples and went back to beeches, which did even better than the oaks.
To get a true idea of this exceptional character, one must not forget that he worked in total solitude; so total that, toward the end of his life, he lost the habit of talking. Or maybe he just didn’t see the need for it.
In 1933 he received the visit of an astonished forest ranger. This functionary ordered him to cease building fires outdoors, for fear of endangering this natural forest. It was the first time, this naive man told him, that a forest had been observed to grow up entirely on its own. At the time of this incident, he was thinking of planting beeches at a spot twelve kilometres from his house. To avoid the coming and going – because at the time he was seventy-five years old – he planned to build a cabin of stone out where he was doing his planting. This he did the next year.
In 1935, a veritable administrative delegation went to examine this « natural forest ». There was an important personage from Waters and Forests, a deputy, and some technicians. Many useless words were spoken. It was decided to do something, but luckily nothing was done, except for one truly useful thing : placing the forest under the protection of the State and forbidding anyone from coming there to make charcoal. For it was impossible not to be taken with the beauty of these young trees in full health. And the forest exercised its seductive powers even on the deputy himself.
I had a friend among the chief foresters who were with the delegation. I explained the mystery to him. One day the next week, we went off together to look for Elzéard Bouffier, We found him hard at work, twenty kilometres away from the place where the inspection had taken place.
This chief forester was not my friend for nothing. He understood the value of things. He knew how to remain silent. I offered up some eggs I had brought with me as a gift. We split our snack three ways, and then passed several hours in mute contemplation of the landscape.
The hillside whence we had come was covered with trees six or seven meters high. I remembered the look of the place in 1913 : a desert… The peaceful and steady labour, the vibrant highland air, his frugality, and above all, the serenity of his soul had given the old man a kind of solemn good health. He was an athlete of God. I asked myself how many hectares he had yet to cover with trees.
Before leaving, my friend made a simple suggestion concerning certain species of trees to which the terrain seemed to be particularly well suited. He was not insistent. « For the very good reason, he told me afterwards, that this fellow knows a lot more about this sort of thing than I do. After another hour of walking, this thought having travelled along with him, he added : He knows a lot more about this sort of thing than anybody – and he has found a jolly good way of being happy !
It was thanks to the efforts of this chief forester that the forest was protected, and with it, the happiness of this man. He designated three forest rangers for their protection, and terrorized them to such an extent that they remained indifferent to any jugs of wine that the woodcutters might offer as bribes.
The forest did not run any grave risks except during the war of 1939. Then automobiles were being run on wood alcohol, and there was never enough wood. They began to cut some of the stands of the oaks of 1910, but the trees stood so far from any useful road that the enterprise turned out to be bad from a financial point of view, and was soon abandoned. The shepherd never knew anything about it. He was thirty kilometres away, peacefully continuing his task, as untroubled by the war of 39 as he had been of the war of 14.