The Man Who Planted Trees is an allegorical tale by French author Jean Giono (1895- 1971), published in 1953. I chanced upon a copy of it when I was on retreat. The slim version I had included some delightful wood engravings by Michael McCurdy, and an engaging Afterword by Norma L. Goodrich. Giono wrote more than 30 novels, as well as many short stories, plays, poetry, essays and film scripts. Many of his books have been translated into English. The words of Goodrich are equally affecting as those of Giono, and some of her insights are reproduced below.
The name Elzeard calls to mind some forgotten Hebrew prophet, wise man, or Oriental king. The last name means in both French and English something grandiose: bouﬁi, bouﬂé, that is, puffed up (like a great man), puffed out (like wind, or a cloud in the sky). Such an old hero appears remarkably in most of Giono’s early ﬁction, often a shepherd, or else some venerable alcoholic, storyteller, old hired man, or knife sharpener, but usually escorted by beasts; sheep, bees, a bull, a stag, a toad, or a serpent. Such lonely old men in their delirium directly hear the voice of God, or that of some ageless Greek divinity such as the great Pan. One must think of these variously gifted old men as embodying the creative gods themselves as native survivals in this ancient Provence, to which they continually brought their wisdom, their knowledge of agriculture, their message of life indestructible, all of them teaching, like the titanic Dionysus, the precious secret of humanity's ancient kinship with the earth.
From the 1920's, Giono continually praised this harmony whereby human beings conserved and enriched the earth where they coexisted with animals, both enriched by the silent but responsive, living vegetable kingdom. Giono also praised work done in solitude, where creation originates and, especially in humankind, where the free expression of compassion and pity begins.
People have suffered for so long inside walls that they have forgotten to be free, Giono thought. Human beings were not created to live forever in subways and tenements, for their feet long to stride through tall grass, or slide through running water. The poet's mission is to remind us of beauty, of trees swaying in the breeze, or pines groaning under snow in the mountain passes, of wild white horses galloping cross the surf.