issue 184 - June 1988
Illustration montage: Alan Hughes
The man who grew happiness
There is a road that runs from Vergons to Banon, in that ancient region
of France where the Alps thrust down into Provence. It has known many
travellers and many changes. If you go there today, you will pass through
a beautiful forest, verdant, lush and hospitable. It was not always so.
To travel that road at the beginning of this century was almost a sign of madness. It was an unholy area then; the land was arid and empty, nothing grew there and no birds sang. The only inhabitants were remote one from the other, and a living could be scratched from the dusty soil only with such great difficulty that life was cheap; travellers and even natives walked alone there with a knife in their belt. Grey shadows cast by the red crags offered shade, but weren't to be trusted. There were no trees against which to rest one's back.
Jean Giono first travelled that road as a student in the summer of 1913. His journey was an attempt to 'find himself', but at the end of one particular day he was regretting his simple foolhardiness in setting out to cross the badlands on foot. There were no trees, no windbreaks, and no vegetation to fix the soil. His face was stung continually by glassy grains of sand flung at him by the hot wind. The western horizon melted into the burning sky. And like a grumbling jackal the wind seemed to circle the ruined village Jean had reached, with its roofless houses and the chapel with its crumbling steeple. The cluster of dwellings looked like an old wasps' nest and the spring was dry. If only there were some water, if only there were some greenery, some sign of life and growth.
All at once, against the sun and stinging wind, an old man appeared, in a beret and woollen waistcoat 'You look worn out,' the old man said. 'Come with me, and I will give you water, food and shelter for the night. Then tomorrow you will be able to complete your journey.' There was a look of calm reassurance in the old man's eyes that lifted Jean's spirits; the offer of a roof for the night was more than he could have wished for.
The old man was a shepherd and his cottage was the only fully roofed dwelling in the ruined village. Jean couldn't see how 30 sheep and one shepherd could sustain themselves in that barren valley, without trees, without vegetation, without water. But the old man assured him it was possible. 'Besides,' he said, 'I don't intend to be a shepherd all my life. I am planting a forest, you see'.
Jean accepted this and other strange utterances without probing. After supper he watched in silence as the old man fetched a sack and poured out a heap of acorns onto the table. He started to inspect them one by one, separating the good from the bad. 'Can I help?' Jean asked.
'Thank you, but no. The task is mine.'
Eventually the old man seemed satisfied with his heap of good acorns and he started to count them out in tens, inspecting them even more rigorously than before and discarding those that were small or slightly cracked. Jean watched in silence as the shepherd's fingers thus selected 100 perfect acorns.
As they slept that night, the wind on the cottage's old tiles sounded like waves lapping on a Mediterranean shore, and Jean dreamed of beautiful green forests with the breeze lightly rustling the leaves, of smiling, healthy people beckoning him to a pool in a glade where others were already swimming and diving.
Next morning, despite having a destination to reach, Jean followed the old shepherd, whose pasture was down in the valley. At first Jean could not workout why the old man was carrying an iron rod as thick as a man's thumb and about four feet long. As he watched it gradually became clear. In addition to his iron staff the shepherd was carrying his sack of 100 perfect acorns, and every ten yards or so he would thrust his rod into the earth, insert an acorn and refill the hole. He was planting the entire hillside with baby oaks.
'Does this land belong to you?' Jean asked.
'Do you know whose it is?'
'No... I suppose it's common land. Maybe it belongs to someone who doesn't care about it. Anyway, it's not important.'
'How long have you been doing this?'
'About three years.'
'One hundred acorns a day for three years?'
'That's right. I must have planted 100,000. I reckon 20,000 have sprouted. We'll probably lose half of them to rodents and frost but there should still be 10,000 oaks soon where there was nothing before.'
The old man was also studying the reproduction of beech trees, and tending a nursery of seedlings grown from beechnuts near his cottage. He was sure there was water just below the surface of the soil in the valley; 'That valley was just made for birches.'
Jean left with a curious mixture of memories: of the barrenness of the landscape and the sensuous dream of his cool forest-glade. He completed his journey that day and put the encounter out of his mind.
Returning to his old life, he was thrust into the Great War, which he survived. Then with his demob pay in his pocket and memories of mud and fields of white crosses in his brain, he found himself going south, drawn towards the sun as unwittingly as a crocus in spring. He travelled again down that road between Vergons and Banon scarcely recognizing it. He assumed that memories of the war had affected all his other memories. But the lack of recognition was a result of the total transformation of the place over the previous six years. Instead of a treeless, barren, erosion-scarred landscape Jean could see a kind of silver-grey mist that covered the hills like a carpet. Young trees were everywhere.
That night Jean slept peacefully amongst the lavender bushes and sapling birches growing near a deserted village. Towards dawn he dreamed he was walking in a beautiful, shady forest and was being beckoned towards a pool in the middle of a glade where young bodies gleamed and flashed in the sunlight reflected off the water. The man beckoning him wore a beret and a woollen waistcoat. He had a look of calm assurance on his face that Jean remembered but couldn't place. He was on the verge of placing the dream when he woke up: the early morning light was gleaming silver on the delicate birch limbs, and there was a rustling breeze in the spring-green leaves. The man with the beret was looking at him.
'I know you,' he said. 'You were here before.'
Through images of men's faces frozen in death, came the face of the shepherd. Yet surely this was not sheep country? Six years ago this land had been barren - worse than barren, it had been dead, life-threatening. Yet here vegetation was burgeoning - the air was tranquil and trees stretched as far as Jean could see.
The old man nodded. He wasn't quite smiling, but there was a contented set to his mouth and his look of silent assurance finally jogged Jean's memory. Oh yes, he had been there. But he could scarcely believe the transformation. As if he understood Jean's disbelief, the old man nodded and gestured at the trees growing all around them, with the pride of a father presenting his first-born.
Later, still with his fatherly pride, the old man led Jean round his forest. (He was no longer a shepherd - he had only four sheep now, and instead looked after 100 beehives.) The fruits of his labour - 10,000 oaks and 1,000 beeches - were as evident as the accuracy of his prediction about the water beneath the sand in the valley.
A vast forest of saplings - oaks, beeches, birches - stretched around them in three sections for a length of 11 kilometres and up to a width of three kilometres. Jean was struck dumb as the former shepherd led him all day, like a convalescent, around this shoulder-high forest. It was as if Jean had been blinded by staring into the centre of an exploding shell and now the old man was giving him his sight back. The sensual delight of seeing silenced Jean and stilled all memories of war. It was incredible to imagine that in 1915, when Jean had been fighting in Verdun, the old man had been planting birches that now stood slender and delicate as young dancers. It was incredible that a forest should have sprung from one man's efforts, from one man's vision and patient toil.
It wasn't just a forest that had grown. Over the years, the road that runs between Vergons and Banon became busier and busier, as more and more travellers headed for the now beautiful area away from their treeless work-places. The numbers of picnickers and day-trippers began to pose a threat to the wood, and in the 1930s it was put under the protection of the national forestry department as part of the region's natural heritage. The old man was given a lecture by one of the rangers: 'We can't have anyone lighting fires now, can we sir? We wouldn't like to endanger this beautiful forest now, would we? Especially since it's grown so miraculously of its own accord.' The old man probably smiled and nodded as he had done to Jean, with the quiet assurance of one who knows that tomorrow he will be out again planting beechnuts.
As the forest grew, so the little village, derelict and deserted since 1900, started to revive. The ruins were cleared away and in 1946 when Jean Giono visited the old man for the last time (he was 87 years old and two years from his death) five houses had been restored. By now 28 people lived there, including two young married couples. Their new houses, freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens where vegetables and flowers grew in orderly confusion - cabbages and roses, leeks and snapdragons, celery and anemones. Even the air felt full of life; instead of the harsh, hot winds that had stung his face in 1913, a gentle breeze was blowing, laden with scents. A sound like water - the wind in the trees - came from the hillside, and Jean heard the actual sound of water falling into a pool. A fountain had been built.
It was flowing freely, and beside it a linden, probably four years old, was already in full leaf. The old man showed Jean that particular tree with especial pride.
'Someone else is planting now,' he said.
There is a road that runs between Vergons and Banon, in that same ancient region of France where the Alps thrust down into Provence. Travel it today and you will discover a countryside aglow with health and prosperity. Neat farms testify to a happy and comfortable life. The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again. Their waters have been channelled. On each farm in groves of maples, fountain pools overflow onto carpets of fresh mint. Along the roads you meet hearty men and women, boys and girls who understand laughter and the delights of shady clearings. All in all, more than 10,000 people owe their happiness to the unfailing greatness of spirit and tenacity of purpose of a single old man - an old man who planted trees and grew happiness.
Adapted from Jean Giono's The man who planted trees and grew happiness by Simon Lewis.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7