Do you know the little book The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono (1895-1970), with woodcut engravings by Michael McCurdy (Chelsea Green, 2005)?¹
You should. It’s a modern-day fable or parable by the only son of a French cobbler and laundress, who grew up to become a prolific and accomplished author, a winner of many awards and prizes, and an idealist: during World War II, in fact, he was twice imprisoned for his pacifism.
His protagonist is a fictional shepherd whom he names Elzéard Bouffier. It’s a short, lovely tale. Don’t fret that Giono made it up. Because if that matters to you, there are many real-life Elzéard Bouffiers to admire.
(Read here about a man who has single-handedly planted an entire forest in southern India. And recall that Nobel-recipient Wangari Maathai started a movement in Kenya that has planted 51 million trees since 1977. And on a much smaller scale, there’s this earlier post of mine about a tree-planting Latin scholar (!) who led a successful effort to reforest a hillside in Split, Croatia. Just three examples out of the many more I could list.)
Here’s how Giono begins his story:
For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years. If this performance is devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is unparalleled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and that, in addition, it has left its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.
For my part, I’m not interested in the bit about character and “truly exceptional qualities” — I’m more and more convinced that “character,” as it is commonly understood, does not exist and that belief in “character” does real harm — but I do want to reflect upon “left its visible mark upon the earth.”
Query: if I could convince you that every trace and memory of your existence on this earth will disappear within a comparatively short time after your death, how would you choose to live your life?
Two thousand years ago, a Jewish sage named Yohanan ben Zakkai is supposed to have said:
If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, “Come quickly, the messiah is here,” first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah.
But why plant that tree? After all, with the coming of the messiah, the earth will supposedly flourish of its own accord: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). So what’s the point?
At the End of Days, why plant a tree? If global warming will end by making Homo sapiens just another extinct species, as seems likelier than not, why not fold up your tent and go home?
Think about that for a bit. I’ll get back to you soon, and I’ll be expecting an answer.
¹ There are .pdf versions of Giorno’s story on the web. Here’s a trick you may not know about Google searching. After you type out your search terms, you may add the phrase filetype:pdf (or filetype:docx, filetype:pptx, filetype:jpeg, etc.) to limit your results to files of that type. So if you search for “The Man Who Planted Trees” filetype:pdf, putting quotation marks around the title to have the browser search for that entire phrase, you will get several links to the text of this little book.