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the man who planted trees

Discovering this story resembles its narrator, walking "in that ancient region where the Alps thrust down into Provence" and stumbling on 'The Man Who Planted Trees', or 'L'homme qui plantait des arbres'. That is, like unexpectedly finding a green oasis in a parched land, which turns out to be the life's work of a single man.

It was his opinion that this land was dying for want of trees. He added that, having no very pressing business of his own, he had resolved to remedy this state of affairs.
L'homme qui plantait des arbres - The man who planted trees

There's great simplicity and wisdom in this short story by Jean Giono, written in 1953, both in its rather prescient theme of ecological restoration and as a meditation on humility, patience and singleminded devotion. It's also a story to return to, like the narrator to the growing forest, with entire World Wars in between, and marvel at its "magnificent generosity".

When you remembered that all this had sprung from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understand that men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.

The story was adapted into a beautiful and lovingly crafted animated film (1987) by Canadian director Frédéric Back, which narrates pretty much the full story, and in its sketched, dreamlike style manages to capture its timeless quality.

As a pair of small masterpieces, 'L'homme qui plantait des arbres' reminds of Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea', which was also faithfully animated. It's interesting to compare the two, as both are about man's relationship with nature, and both involve heroic struggle, though of a very different kind, by stubborn, taciturn and solitary men. The Old Man in one glorious questing battle with a beast, and learning humility from the sea. And Elezeard Bouffier, "indetectable" in his slow, methodical treeplanting project, imitating the ways of nature itself. The one North-American, in tragic and bloody confrontation with wilderness. The other European, written soon after WWII, when Giono had to convince himself "that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable".

Both versions of 'L'homme qui plantait des arbres' are online: the story (FR / EN) and the film (FR / EN).

(English translation by Peter Doyle.)