“The Man Who Planted Trees” – Chapter 4
The next year the war of 14 came, in which I was engaged for five years. An infantryman could hardly think about trees. To tell the truth, the whole business hadn’t made a very deep impression on me; I took it to be a hobby, like a stamp collection, and forgot about it.
With the war behind me, I found myself with a small demobilization bonus and a great desire to breathe a little pure air. Without any preconceived notion beyond that, I struck out again along the trail through that deserted country.
The land had not changed. Nonetheless, beyond that dead village I perceived in the distance a sort of grey fog that covered the hills like a carpet. Ever since the day before I had been thinking about the shepherd who planted trees. Ten thousand oaks, I had said to myself, must really take up a lot of space.
I had seen too many people die during those five years not to be able to imagine easily the death of Elzéard Bouffier, especially since when a man is twenty he thinks of a man of fifty as an old codger for whom nothing remains but to die. He was not dead. In fact, he was very spry. He had changed his job. He only had four sheep now, but to make up for this he had about a hundred beehives. He had gotten rid of the sheep because they threatened his crop of trees. He told me (as indeed I could see for myself) that the war had not disturbed him at all. He had continued imperturbably with his planting.
The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old and were taller than me and than him. The spectacle was impressive. I was literally speechless and, as he didn’t speak himself, we passed the whole day in silence, walking through his forest. It was in three sections, eleven kilometres long overall and, at its widest point, three kilometres wide. When I considered that this had all sprung from the hands and from the soul of this one man – without technical aids – , it struck me that men could be as effective as God in domains other than destruction.
He had followed his idea, and the beeches that reached up to my shoulders and extending as far as the eye could see bore witness to it. The oaks were now good and thick, and had passed the age where they were at the mercy of rodents; as for the designs of Providence, to destroy the work that had been created would henceforth require a cyclone. He showed me admirable stands of birches that dated from five years ago, that is to say from 1915, when I had been fighting at Verdun. He had planted them in the valley bottoms where he had suspected, correctly, that there was water close to the surface. They were as tender as young girls, and very determined.
This creation had the air, moreover, of working by a chain reaction. He had not troubled about it; he went on obstinately with his simple task. But, in going back down to the village, I saw water running in streams that, within living memory, had always been dry. It was the most striking revival that he had shown me. These streams had borne water before, in ancient days. Certain of the sad villages that I spoke of at the beginning of my account had been built on the sites of ancient Gallo-Roman villages, of which there still remained traces; archaeologists digging there had found fishhooks in places where in more recent times cisterns were required in order to have a little water.
The wind had also been at work, dispersing certain seeds. As the water reappeared, so too did willows, osiers, meadows, gardens, flowers, and a certain reason to live.
But the transformation had taken place so slowly that it had been taken for granted, without provoking surprise. The hunters who climbed the hills in search of hares or wild boars had noticed the spreading of the little trees, but they set it down to the natural spitefulness of the earth. That is why no one had touched the work of this man. If they had suspected him, they would have tried to thwart him. But he never came under suspicion : Who among the villagers or the administrators would ever have suspected that anyone could show such obstinacy in carrying out this magnificent act of generosity?