Testo della storia in inglese
Many years ago, some 40 years ago, I set out, I was out on a walking to the Alpes, into Provence, quite unknown to the others.
This land was bleak and monotonous, the only vegetation that existed was lavender, nothing grew there but wild lavender.
After walking for three days I found myself in a waste land, desolate beyond description.
I rested near a deserted, abandoned village.
There were still a few houses without roofs ruined by rain and wind and there also was a little church with a ruined church tower, but life had disappeared, life had vanished.
I had not been drinking for two days. My water supply had finished
The presence of houses made me feel there was a fountain, perhaps a well. I thought I could find some water there.
There was a fountain, indeed, but it was dry.
It was a sunny, cloudless June day and the wind was blowing very fast. It sounded like a wild beast disturbed.
I had to keep on walking.
Out of five hours walking, I still had found no water.
Everywhere I saw dryness and wooden weed.
In the distance something caught my eyes, I perceived a dark silhouette.
I thought it was a tree-trunk. I walked towards it. It was a shepherd and beside him, resting on the hot dry ground, there were about thirty sheep.
He let me drink from his water-bottle and later he took me to his sheepfold and, he drew water, excellent water, from a deep natural hollow. That man was not talkative at all, like all the people living alone.
He lived not in a hut, but in a real house, a house made of stones whose walls had been repaired, it was evident that he had mended a house that once had been in ruin. Its roof was strong and solid and the wind on its tiles sounded like the sea on the seashore.
Inside it was neat and tidy: dishes washed, floor sweeped and there was some soup on the fire.
I noticed that the man had recently shaved, all his buttons were well sewn, his clothes had been perfectly mended in a way that it was almost impossible to notice it.
We shared the soup and when I offered him some tobacco he answered he didn’t smoke.
I didn’t have to ask him to be his host for the night: the nearest village was distant more then one day and half walk. Furthermore, I knew that people living in little villages whose job is woodcutter who produce carbon usually are bad tempered. It is a hard work and they are eager to escape from that place. They are competitive on everything even on the sit in the Church.
The wind get people nervous. Usually we hear about people committing suicide and many other go out of wit.
The old man took acorns out of a sac and started examining them very attentively one by one and keeping apart the big from the small ones. I was smoking my pipe. I offered him some help but he refused, he answered it was his business.
When he had chosen a lot of big acorns, he divided them into heaps of ten. After that, he started making another selection. When he finally had in front of him 100 perfect acorns, he stopped and we went to bed. His hospitality was very peaceful.
The day after I asked him to rest there for the day.
I didn’t need a rest, but I wanted to observe him and know more about him.
The shepherd leaded his sheep out, but before leaving he soaked the bag where he had put the acorns so carefully chosen, in a bucket full of water. He had an iron stick not very long and almost an inch thick. I pretended I wanted to walk some time and I followed him. After a while he left his dog with his sheep and came up to me. I thought he was annoyed I followed him, but soon I realised it was the way he had to take. He asked me if I wanted to follow him. He moved a bit farther and started planting his stick in the ground. This way he made holes in the ground where he put his acorns, afterwards he covered it with some earth. He was planting oaks. I asked him if he was the owner of that land and he answered he wasn’t. He didn’t care to know if there was an owner or not. He planted all the 100 acorns with much care.
After dinner I started asking him questions again and he told me that he had been planting acorns for three years. He had planted one hundred thousand. Out of them, twenty thousand had sprouted. And he thought he was going to miss half of them. Ten thousand of them were left that would have grown in that desert land. That moment I got interested in the age of that man. He must have been older then fifty. He said fifty-five.
His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He had lived on a farm and fist he lost his only child and later his wife. He decided to live in solitude, to live in peace with his dog and his sheep. He thought that without trees that place would have come to an end.
He added that having nothing more interesting to do, he decided to improve the condition of that place. I told him that in thirty years those trees would be sumptuous. He answered that if God permitted, by that time he would have planted even more so that those trees would look like a drop in the ocean. He was still studying the growing of beech and next to his house there was a beechwood. He was also thinking about growing birches on the land where there was more water.
I left the day after .
The next year, it was 1914, I left for the Army, because of the outbreak of the first world war. And I was engaged for five years. While I was in the army I didn’t think about this and I had forgotten it. At the end of the war I needed to breath some good air. So I returned to that desert land without thinking about what had happened. The village had not changed, but in the distance, over the village I saw some grey fog that covered the hills of the mountains as if it was a blanket.
Since the day before I was thinking about that shepherd who planted oaks. And I thought to myself “2000 trees cover a big peace of land.
During the 5 years I had seen a lot of people dying to find it difficult to think that Elzéard Bouffier had died, also because, when you are very young, you consider the 50 year-old people only wait to die.
He was not dead. He was actually at his best. He had changed his job. Only 5 sheep was left, but he had 100 hives. Sheep was dangerous for his trees. He didn’t care about the war and he went on planting trees. The trees he planted in 1910 now were 10 years old and they were taller then me and the old man.
In front of me there was a grandiose view. I was struck by it and I couldn’t say a word, and because he was not talkative we spent all the day walking in silence through his forest.
The size of the forest was 11 kilometres wide and if we considered that it had been realized by the hands and the soul of that man, without any means you could understand that man not only can bring destruction, but he can also be the hand of God in getting better things.
The trees were so many and so strong that only hurricanes could destroy them.
Now the trees were growing by themselves. The man didn’t take care about them anymore.
Going down the hillside I could see streams of water that had been there only centuries ago.
Those streams had brought water only in ancient times.
Some of the desolate villages I spoke about at the beginning of the story, were built on sites of ancient villages Gaul Roman, where archaeologists excavated and found hooks in a place where in the twentieth century it was necessary cisterns to get some water.
Thanks to water also willows grew, together with rush, fields, flowers and people lived in peace.
But the transformation came so slowly that people were not astonished.
Hunters who used to come to that desolate land to catch hares, thought it was strange the growth of those trees and considered it a strange product of nature.
So nobody disturbed the work of that man. If they had suspected it, they would have hindered it. He was beyond suspicion. Who could ever suspect, in the village or in the administration such a persistence of the greatest generosity.
Since 1920, I met Elzéard Bouffier once a year and he had periods of discouragement indeed but he never gave up. There was a year when he had planted ten thousand maples and no one survived. The following year, he abandoned them and planted beeches that grew better than oaks.
He used to work in complete solitude and when he got very old he lost the habit to speak.
Perhaps he needn’t speak.
In 1933, a forester, a ranger came to meet him to forbid him to light fires in open air, to avoid risks of fire in that natural forest. It was the first time, he explained, that a forest grew by itself.
That period, Bouffier used to plant trees 12 km far from his house. He was seventy years old and it was too far to go and to come back, so he decided to build a small stone house on the place where he worked.
In 1935 a delegation of the Government came to examine the natural forest. They decided to protect the forest and forbid people to use it to make carbon. Among them there was a friend of mine and I explained him the mystery and we went together to meet Elzéard Bouffier. We found him working hard 20 km far from where they were examining the forest. We went up to the man and my friend kept silent like us. We shared our snack and we stayed in silence looking at the scene.
The coast was covered with trees by three to eight metres high. I could remember what it looked like in 1913, a desert… the regular and serene work of that man, the air, the serenity of the soul, made that man healthy. He was a God athlete, I wondered how many trees he would have planted.
My friend wanted to suggest plants to grow on that land, than he said “that man knows more than anyone. He has found a good way to be happy!”
My friend appointed three guardians to protect the happiness of that man and he frightened them so much that they never accepted money from woodcutters.
During the war in 1939 cars needed gas generator, so wood was necessary. They started cutting oaks, but the trees were so distant from the road that it was not value to do it. The man had not seen anything about it. He was thirty km far from that place and he was peacefully going on planting trees, ignoring the war in 1939 as he did with the previous war.
The last time I met Elzéard Bouffier was in 1945. he was 87. I returned to that place thinking I wouldn’t have recognized it.
In 1913, the village I was crossing counted just 3 inhabitants. They hate one another, they lived on hunting, they were like pre historic people. Nettles surrounded the abandoned houses nearby. Their condition was hopeless. They were just waiting to die.
Now all had changed. Air was not dry and the wind was blowing fast but calm and rich in perfumes.
Finally I heard the true sound of water falling from a fountain: water was abundant, and next to it people had planted a lime tree that was a symbol of resurrection.
The village Vergon had signs of a work based on hopefulness. Hope had come back to this village.
They had taken the ruins away, pulled down the ruined walls and they had re built 5 houses. The village counted 28 inhabitants, 4 of them were young families. The new houses were freshly plastered, and there were gardens around them where people grew flowers and vegetables. It was a place were people wanted to live.
I kept on walking. The war kept slow the revitalization, but Lazzaro came out of the tomb.
In 8 years that land had completely changed from desert to blooming life and happiness.
Water had started to run again and it had been canalized. Time after time Villages had been completely rebuilt.
People coming from plain, where the land is expensive, has moved here, bringing youth and movement. On the road you can meet men and ladies well dressed and healthy, boys and girls who want to have parties and enjoy themselves.
You can hardly recognize the old generation since they live in harmony.. more than ten thousand people are happy thanks to Elzéard Bouffier.
When I think that a man with only his moral and physical resources could change a desert into a peaceful village I can believe that, in spite of everything, human condition is admirable.
But, when I think about the determination and the generosity of that man to get these results, I feel a great respect for that old man without education that knew how to bring to a good end a work worthy of God.
Elzéard Bouffier died in peace in 1947, in the old people’s home in Banon.