The Hermit in Lore: Jean Giono's The Man Who Planted Trees.

Jean Giono (1895-1970) is perhaps best known to English-language readers for his tale The Man Who Planted Trees, though it was a late work coming after establishing a strong reputation in Europe as a master craftsman of stories that thrive on the sketch or incident. Uniformly, this glimpse of human character in his stories was realist or naturalistic; he  was noted for his insightful portraits of fallible humanity.

So The Man Who Planted Trees, a triumph of courage, hope, and understanding, offers a different expression of Giono, but it is not so much out of character with his previous works as much as offering a revelation of Giono's mature philosophy of life, a philosophy that can be warmly recommended to all.

The Solitude of Compassion

It is worth briefly exploring the art of Giono's fiction in order to fully appreciate The Man Who Planted Trees, and this exploration need not detain one further than looking at a representative example of his work, such as the collection of short stories titled The Solitude of Compassion (Solitude de la pitié), the first book the English-language translator of it read and still his favorite.

The title (The Solitude of Compassion, which is the title of the first story) is intriguing enough. The virtue of compassion is very often solitary not because it goes unrewarded but because it militates against social instinct. This is an important theme for Giono: human beings functioning in society will often be cruel, indifferent, rapacious. Giono portrays all of these capacities in his fiction.

But as individuals removed from the conventions and contrivances of society, especially (or specifically) returned to a relationship with nature, human beings can recover their inherent potential for sympathy, compassion, and balance. And this capacity is portrayed in his work as well, but nowhere with such eloquent understatement as in The Man Who Planted Trees. But more on Giono's work first.

In the story "The Solitude of Compassion," two vagrants travel together, the larger one obviously in charge, the other of the staring blue eyes useless by social convention. The first shares everything: his time, his food, his company, and the alms he gains. He gets the idea of traveling to a town (the fare costs each of them ten cents) and of getting an easy job that will put them ahead. They stop at a curé's house. They are refused alms but when the first vagrant asks for a job they are given the task of fixing the well pump.

Of course, only the first vagrant can do the work. His companion waits. We feel the suspense when the man descends into the cold and dark well, for evening has fallen. But at last he emerges safely, the job done, and they are handed their remuneration by the housekeeper, who firmly locks the door behind them. The vagrants go out into the cold, rainy night. By a streetlight they look at the coin in the larger man's hand. Ten cents, less than their fare to the place. The despair in the blue-eyed one is unmistakable. "I am a chain around your neck, me, sick. You will get tired, leave me." No," said the large man. "Come." No greater love than this for one's brother, but it is a solitary compassion, not demonstrated by the curé nor by society writ large.

Other stories in this collection also portray the indifference and cruelty of others. Sometimes the "other" is a blind force such as war, or a disaster of weather, or unkempt fields of dry and obstinate thistles and vines. But there are glimpses of hope. A man rescues a dove from a tavern where gruff lumberjacks have gathered to torment a little bird. In the countryside, a peasant Fermin cannot stand the wails of his wife Maldelon giving birth. To pass the time, Fermin and the narrator bring a solitary cypress from the river bank and transplant it next to the house. All goes well with the birthing. Years later, now an old man, the peasant narrator reminisces: "Fermin died. Madelon died. The little one did not come back from the war. The tree remains."

And the last of the twenty stories -- each of which is a dissertation on solitude --is titled "Song of the World" and is a stark and beautiful two-and-a-half pages. Giono reflects on the possibility of a novel about -- not people but natural objects: a river, a mountain, a forest.

What is needed is to put man in his place, not to make him the center of everything, to be humble enough to perceive that a mountain exists not merely as height and width but as weight, emissions, gestures overarching power, words, sympathy. A river is a character, with its rages and its loves, its power, its god of chance, its sicknesses, its thirst for adventures. Rivers, springs, are characters: they love, they deceive, they lie, they betray, they are beautiful, they dress themselves in rushes and mosses. The forest breathes. The fields, the moors, the hills, the beaches, the oceans, the valleys ... all of this is not a simple spectacle for our eyes. It is a society of living things.

That is why, for Giono, a human being can learn everything from nature, and everything negative from human society. That is why he can find solitude in nature, not an alienation from true self but a social environment in itself.

Giono continues:

One must, I believe, see, love, comprehend, hate, the association of men, the world around it, as one is forced to look, to love, to detest men profoundly in order to portray them. One should stop isolating the character "man." Sow him with simple habitual seeds, but show him as he is ... We do not want to isolate man. He is no longer isolated. The face of the earth is his heart.

That Giono could write this in 1932 makes plausible the thought that The Man Who Planted Trees was in long gestation.

The Man Who Planted Trees

A curious detail dogs this wonderful story. A United States publisher originally solicited an essay by him on a memorable person. Giono submitted the fictional piece, to the objection of the publisher who wanted only non-fiction. So Giono withdrew the story and turned it loose. He made it available for free, to readers anywhere.

But that publisher still claims rights over the translation. Giono's assessment was unambiguous about copyright: "It is one of my stories of which I am proudest," he told American scholar and translator Norma Goodrich. "It does not bring me one simple penny -- and that is why it has accomplished what it was written for."

And why did Giono write it? He wanted to persuade people to plant trees, to love planting trees, though the story is far larger than even this ambitious desire. For Giono created a hermit as a model of human creativity and happiness, a figure whose accomplishments he praises as godlike, whose character he describes as pure virtue.

The introductory paragraph presents the personal characteristics that the author considers exceptional qualities in a human being:

  1. sufficient longevity to demonstrate persistence
  2. complete absence of egoism
  3. "unparalleled generosity" without thought of compensation
  4. a positive and visible effect on nature

The narrator is a young man traveling by foot through a deserted area of Provence (southern France) near the Alps. Giono often makes such narrators in his stories personae representing himself. The region is marked by high winds and lack of water has turned the are bare and scruffy, leaving the ruins of sad and abandoned villages. The years is 1913. And here the narrator encounters a hermit.

The hermit is a shepherd, the only person living in this desolate land. He lives alone with his sheep and a dog. The narrator is surprised because the shepherd does not conform to the hermit type. The man lives in a house, not a hut, and is clean, groomed, the house orderly, the food good. This is no garrulous and grumpy recluse but a thoughtful and purposeful man. Even his dog, "as silent as himself" was "friendly without being servile." So we have a further set of habits to add to Giono's list of desirable virtues.

The next day, the narrator witnesses the hermit's occupation or passion: the planting of acorns that will one day become oak trees, thousands of them. In answering the narrator's insistent questions, the shepherd (he is not called a hermit, and is called by name after revealing it to the narrator) notes only that he planted trees because he had "no very pressing business of his own." His wife and son had died, and "he had withdrawn into this solitude" to live, and had seen that the land was dying for lack of trees.

The two men part. A world war follows. After the war the narrator takes to the road again, himself a solitary. He recalls the ten thousand oaks that Elzéard Bouffier had hoped to see, and sets out in that direction. The narrator finds the hermit and witnesses the trees.

I was literally speechless and, as he did not talk, we spent the whole day walking in silence through his forest. In three sections it measured eleven kilometers in length and three kilometers at its greatest width. When you remembered that all this had sprung from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understood that men could be as effectual as God in realms other than that of destruction.

And so the parallel momentum of creation and anonymity continues to unfold over the years. The forest grows healthier, and with it returns water, flora, and fauna. Government officials are attracted by the "natural" growth of this new forest. The anonymity of Bouffier was just as "natural." As the narrator says, "One must forget that he worked in total solitude: so total that toward the end of his life he lost the habit of speech. Or perhaps it was that he saw no need for it."

In 1935, the narrator brought a forest ranger whom he had befriended to visit Elzéard Bouffier in confidence. The former recalled the treeless desert of 1913 and the forest ranger later admitted that Bouffier knew more about trees and soil than himself. "He knows a lot more about it than anybody," said the ranger. Besides, "he's discovered a wonderful way to be happy."

By the end of another world war, the forests had come under public protection, and whole villages had been vitalized or come into being, with families and inhabitants of simple taste who treasured the land and its resources. To the narrator it was a fact beyond human expectation. Bouffier had remained largely oblivious to his accomplishment, as much as he was oblivious to the wars that had not reached him or affected his forests. Concludes the narrator,

When I reflected that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced that in spire of everything, humanity is admirable. But when I compute the unfailing greatness of spirit and the tenacity of benevolence that it must have taken to achieve this result, I am taken with an immense respect for that old and unlearned peasant who was able to complete a work worthy of God.


One is hard pressed to find among fictional or historical hermits the insightful assignment of qualities Giono has identified in the protagonist of The Man Who Planted Trees. The striking combination of anonymous service to humanity through service to nature distinguishes the hermit Elzéard Bouffier from other portraits of singular but externally motivated work. Here is disengagement from society but, more positively, engagement with nature, which is, after all, superior to and encompassing society and everything else. Even among historical hermits, this combination of Giono's is hard to find. This eremitic ideal left obliquely to us by Giono as a reverence for nature is a life crafted as much as the story's hero's is a work of God -- or the work of a great solitary, as the case may be. 


English-language editions Jean Giono's The Man Who Planted Trees (Homme qui plantait des arbres) include: With wood engravings by Michael McCurdy and an afterword by Norma L. Goodrich, Chelsea VT: Chelsea Green, c1985; Iilustrated by Frédéric Back and translated by Jean Roberts, Toronto: CBC Enterprises, c1989; a twentieth anniversary edition with foreword by Wangari Maathai, afterword to original edition by Norma L. Goodrich, and afterword by Andy Lipkis, White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, c2005; with subtitle Generosity of Spirit as a Source of Happiness, introduction and illustrations by Rod MacIver, N. Ferrisburg, VT: Heron Dance Press, 2007.

Chelsea Green is not the publisher arguing exclusive copyright. The work was originally published in the magazine Vogue under the title "The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness" c1954 by Conde Nast Publications.