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Who knew a delectable deceit would spawn a world-wide ecological movement? At least Jean Giono, the perpetrator of the ingenious deception had no clue that a seemingly mischievous act of his would lead to one of the most renowned tree planting awareness movements of all time! In 1953, Jean Giono was invited by the Reader’s Digest magazine to pen a short feature on “The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met”. A sucker for commissions, Giono promptly shot off a 4,000 word story of a most peculiar shepherd called Elzeard Bouffier. Bouffier single handedly transformed an atrociously desolate piece of land, into a breathtaking verdant of magical hues, during the inter-war period. Inhabiting an area in the Haute Provence that was emblematic of ‘unparalleled desolation’ – treeless, parched, cindered with ruined farms and resinous lavender…”, Bouffier miraculously transformed the barren patch of land into an ecological wonderland, a moral renewal.
The story of Bouffier provided great joy to the editors at Reader’s Digest, till such time they subjected the chronicle of Elzeard Bouffier to the rigours of a ‘fact check’. To their collective chagrin and indignity, the commissioners at the magazine, found out that there was no shepherd going by the name of Elzeard Bouffier. There was also no land symbolic of ‘unparalleled desolation’ in the Haute Provence, that in the loving and tender hands of Bouffier had transformed into a paradise – an Eden on earth. Upon being confronted, Giono willingly surrendered the rights to his text and what happened next was indeed an absolute miracle. Within four years there were translations of the work in at least twelve languages. By the turn of the twenty first century, the sylph like “The Man Who Planted Trees” had become a true classic!
Now, to the story itself. An unnamed narrator finds himself on a long trek through an area bound in the south-east by the river Durance, between Sisteron and Mirabeau; and in the north by the upper course of the Drome. This is also the region where the ranges of the Alps extend into Provence. The landscape is absolutely unfertile, and the earth is baked by the wrath of an unrelenting sun. On the brink of exhaustion and plagued by a savage thirst, the trekker sets his eyes upon a shepherd in a most timely manner. The shepherd not only provides the traveler water but also invites him to his humble abode to spend the night. After sufficiently resting himself, the guest’s curiosity is piqued when he spots his host empty a pile of acorns onto a table from a small bag. Meticulously separating the good from the bad, the shepherd plants a hundred acorns at strategic intervals. He goes on to inform the traveler that he has already planted a hundred thousand seeds of which twenty thousand have grown into robust trees. With this refreshing knowledge the duo part company and the traveler goes his way.
Fast forward to 1918. The bloody First World War is over, and the narrator having participated in the slaughter, takes the demob money made available to him, and looking for a breath of fresh air makes his way to the Haute Provence, least expecting to see Elzeard Bouffier. He is seized by a pleasant surprise when he not only finds Bouffier hard at his ecological transformation, but also a refreshing change to the very environ. The oaks of 1910 are now sturdy and are supplemented by birch plantations. The gobsmacked traveler makes his visits to Provence an annual pilgrimage and year after year is treated to a magical transformation of the landscape surrounding him.
A chain reaction to the ecosystem (of the very type that took Yellowstone National Park in its thrall with the introduction of wolves) brings back inhabitants who had deserted the land, and what were ruins earlier are now beautiful and compact farm houses with their own gardens, water wells and fountains. Elzeard Bouffier, after successfully getting a Forest Commissioner to protect the preserve that he has created, dies peacefully in the year 1947.
This seemingly innocuous story captivated so many readers across the globe that Giono had to repeatedly stress the fictional nature of its protagonist to many hundreds of obstinate fans wanting to make a visit to Bouffier’s resting place and province! However Giono had one last humorous prank up his sleeve. As recounted by his daughter in an interview, Giono shared a ‘picture’ of Elzeard Bouffier in 1968, to a German publishing house that wanted to include the indefatigable shepherd in an upcoming anthology of illustrated biographies. “I sent them a photograph of the invented character”. (his italics). The photograph was of a “typical ‘handsome old man’, clear-eyed and with a calm expression, his bearing both proud and awkward, wearing what is clearly his Sunday best in honour of the occasion”.
Try as hard as they might, Reader’s Digest failed in burying the legend of Elzeard Bouffier, and in hindsight, for the good!