Story adaptation by InterestEng.                                                                                                                  

0 (72)

Photo: Alexander 



Jean Giono


I ONCE met a man I could not forget. About forty years ago I went on a long hike over distant hills not known to tourists. It was in the region where the Alps spill [go] into Provence, France. At the time I started my journey, the region was barren [dry and dead] with nothing to delight [give joy to] your eyes. 

     I was crossing this land at its widest part. After walking for three days, I found myself in complete desolation, with nothing around me. I camped next to an abandoned village: no one was left living there. I used the last of my water the day before and I needed to find more. The five or six houses, now without roofs, aged by sun and wind, and the small chapel with its fallen-down bell tower, told me that all life had disappeared.
     It was a beautiful June day, but the wind blew without relief. It was like an angry wild animal. After five hours of walking, I still hadn't found water and nothing gave me hope of finding any. There was just dry, dead land everywhere. 


     As I went on, I thought I saw the small shape of a man. It was a shepherd. Thirty lambs or so were resting near him on the hot ground. He gave me a drink from his gourd and a little later he led me to his shepherd's cottage, a small, simple home tucked down in valley out of the wind. The man spoke little. This is common among those who live alone.  I felt his bravery immediately, living alone in this harsh land in a house of stone that he had made himself. The wind struck the roof with the sound of the sea crashing on the beach.
     His household was in order: his dishes washed, his floor swept, his rifle cleaned and his soup boiled over a fire. I noticed then that he was also freshly shaven, that all the buttons of his coat were firm, and that his clothes were mended with care.
     He shared his soup with me, but when I offered him my tobacco pouch, he told me that he didn't smoke. His dog, as silent as he, was friendly without bothering us. The man invited me to pass the night there, the closest village being still more than a day and a half away. But I knew that whatever village I found in this land, the people would be poor, and what they gave me would be a hardship for them. The people in this region dug charcoal and sold it in the cities. It was a hard life, leaving people bitter. There was a sure competition, or fighting, over everything from the sale of charcoal to who owned what land.  I came to believe that the people were unkind to each other because of the ceaseless wind. Because it never stopped blowing, it made one tired and angry.


       The shepherd, who did not smoke, took out a bag and poured a pile of acorns out onto the table. He began to examine each one with much care, separating the good ones from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I offered to help him, but he told me that it was better if he did it himself. The good acorns, he counted out into groups of ten. The small or bad acorns, those that had even the slightest crack, he threw away. When he had 100 perfect acorns he stopped and we went to bed.
     The company of this man brought me a feeling of peace. I asked him the next morning if I might stay and rest the whole day with him. He agreed kindly. Or more exactly, he gave me the feeling that nothing could disturb him. He let out his flock of sheep and took them to the pasture. Before leaving, he put the 100 acorns in a bucket of water. His sheep pasture lay at the bottom of a small valley. He left his flock in the care of his dog. He then invited me to come along with him if I had nothing better to do. He walked on another 200 meters up the hill and there he began to pound his walking stick into the ground. This made a hole in which he placed an acorn and then covered it over with dirt. He was planting oak trees. I asked him if the land belonged to him. He answered no. Did he know whose land it was? He did not know. 

     In this way he planted 100 acorns with great care. After the noon meal, he began once more to look over his acorns. He told me that for 3 years now he had been planting trees all alone on this hillside. He said that he had planted 100,000. Of these, 100,000 about 20,000 had come up and started to grow. He thought he would loose half of these to wild animals and nature. That left 10,000 oaks that would grow in this place where before there was nothing.
     I began to wonder about his age. He was clearly more than fifty. Fifty-five, he told me. His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He had owned a farm once, where he lived most of his life. He had lost his only son, and then his wife died also. He came to this quiet place where he had joy in living slowly with his flock of sheep and his dog. He understood that his country was dying for lack of trees. Having nothing more important to do, he decided to spend his life planting trees. 

     I told him that in thirty years these ten thousand trees would be magnificent. He replied very simply that, if God gave him life, in 30 years he would have planted so many other trees that these ten thousand would be like a drop of water in the ocean. He said he also wanted to grow beech trees and birches.
     We parted the next day. The next year the first World War of 1914 came, in which I fought for five years.  To tell the truth, I forgot about the man and his trees. But when the war ended, I felt the longing to breathe a little pure air again. And so, I left again for that far-off country. The land had not changed. I began to think again about Elzéard Bouffier, wondering if he was alive, since when a man is 20 he thinks of a man of 50 as very, very old. 


 Elzéard was not dead. In fact, he was alive and very healthy. He only had four sheep now, because his bigger herd had hurt his trees. Instead, he had about 100 beehives. He told me that the war had not touched him. He planted his trees each day as always. The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old and were taller than me and than him. The sight was amazing. I was speechless. And, as he didn’t speak himself, we passed the whole day in silence, walking in his forest. It was in 3 sections, 11 kilometers long and, at its widest point, 3 kilometers wide. When I thought that this had all come from the hands of one man, it told me that men could as easily build, as destroy. All the time that I had been fighting, he had been planting.
    Yet, even though there were already 1000s of trees, he went on faithfully with his simple job. What surprised me even more, was that I saw water running in streams that had always been dry. I was in shock of the life all around me, in this land that had once been dead.  The wind had also been at work, blowing seeds into the valleys and along the hillsides. As the water reappeared, so too did more trees and even flowers.
    But the greatest miracle of all was that the change in the land had come so slowly that no one noticed. The hunters who came in search of wild animals had seen the spreading of the little trees, but they thought it had been the work of nature. That is why no one had touched, or harmed, the work of this man. If they had guessed that one man had done all this, they would have been jealous and would have tried to interrupt his work. But none thought to consider the possibility that this was the work of a man. Who among the villagers, or the important people of the cities, would have believed that anyone could live with such generosity?  But in fact, one man, living all alone, and working all alone, had taken a dead land and brought it back to life.

Elzeard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the age of 89.

 ©InterestEng. July 2013 - July 2021 §  The stories in the magazine portion of the site are written by English language learners. Stories are corrected by a native English speaker.  § Photos are staff photos or used with permission.  §  To contact us: