True confessions. I write this more as an evangelist than a reviewer. Or perhaps like a lover who’s still crazy after all these years.
Decades ago I stumbled upon this short story, first published in 1953, by French author Jean Giano. Set in Provençal France between 1910 and 1945, an anonymous narrator tells of initially meeting, then subsequent visits with, a taciturn shepherd named Elzéard Bouffier – the ‘man who planted trees’. Bouffier, after his wife and child died, moved to a remote and barren area to tend sheep. Seeing the devastated land, he resolved to change it by planting trees. And he did so – for forty years. The results of this unrecognized, patient, continual effort, were astonishing.
I hesitate to expand on this ridiculously short plot summary. First, because the entire ‘book’ is just under 4000 words and can be read over a lunch hour. But more importantly, because the soul of this story transcends any skeletal plot details and is really about grace, transformation and human potential. And I am inadequate to provide any Cliff Notes version of that.
Giano writes as if the story is true and he is the narrator. But the work is actually fiction. And perhaps that’s just as well because it is not really about trees or ecology. If Bouffier and his acts were real that very historical fact might impede its central message of showing what redemptive initiative can do and of challenging each of us to find and fulfill our own potentials.
In 1987 a 30 minute animated film was made of the story, narrated by Christopher Plummer, and it won an Oscar. The animation technique used is a visual delight, reminding you of a Monet painting in motion. The story was also the inspiration for original music composed and performed by the Paul Winter Consort.
Because the work is so short the complete text is available in various places on the internet, including here: http://home.infomaniak.ch/arboretum/Man_Tree.htm.
And surprisingly (but serendipity happens), the complete film is also viewable online, here: http://www.moviesfoundonline.com/man_who_planted_trees.php.
Some years back I preached a sermon (of sorts) at my church where, beginning with a sparse introduction, I simply read this story. At the end I paused and looked over the congregation. There was total silence, and it felt to me as if the entire room was breathing God’s presence. I finished with some summary words of my own, which I tried to keep to the barest minimum, lest I undermine the moment.
I invite you to carve one half hour out of your life to see what this story might do for you.
Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.