Published: 06/14/2006 - Updated: 06/28/2016
If one wants to find truly exceptional qualities in the character of a human being should have the time or opportunity to observe their behavior for several years. If this behavior is not selfish, if it is chaired by a boundless generosity, if it is so obvious that there is no desire for reward, and has left a visible imprint on the earth, then there is no mistake possible.
Forty years ago I made a long journey on foot through mountains completely unknown by tourists across the former French region where the Alps penetrate into Provence. When I started my trip around that place was barren and colorless, and the only thing that grew was the plant known as wild lavender.
When I approached the highest point of my trip, and after walking for three days, I found myself in the midst of an absolute desolation and camping near the ruins of an abandoned village. I had run out of water the day before, and therefore needed to find something of it. That group of houses, but like an old ruined nest of wasps, suggesting that there was once a well or a fountain. They had, of course, but it was dry. The five or six houses without roofs, eaten by the wind and rain, the small chapel with its crumbling bell tower, were there, apparently people lived, but it was gone.
It was a beautiful June day, bright and sunny, high in the sky, with unbearable ferocity.
After five hours of walking, no water and had found no sign of any hope that I would find it. Throughout the round the prevailing drought, the same coarse grasses. I found a glimpse in the distance a small black vertical silhouette that looked like the trunk of a solitary tree. Anyway, I went towards him. He was a pastor. Thirty sheep were seated near him on the burning land.
He gave me a sip of his bottle-gourd, and soon brought me to his cottage in a fold of the plain. I got the super-water from a deep natural pool and above which had constructed a primitive winch.
The man spoke little, as is customary for those who live alone, but felt he was self-assured and confident in his safety. To me, this was surprising in that barren country. Not living in a hut, but in a house made of stone, as evident from the work that he had spent to rebuild the ruin he had found when he arrived. The roof was strong and solid. And the wind to blow on it, recalling the sound of the waves breaking on the beach.
The house was tidy, dishes washed, the floor swept, his rifle greased, his soup boiling on the fire. I noticed that it was good shave, that all his buttons were sewn well and that his clothes had been patched with the meticulous care. We share the soup, then when I offered my snuff, he said he did not smoke. His dog, he was friendly as silent without being servile.
From the outset it was assumed that I would pass the night there. The nearest town was a day and a half away. Moreover, already knew well the kind of people in that region ... There were four or five or more of them scattered over the slopes of the mountains, between clusters of sessile oak, at the end of dusty roads. There were inhabited by charcoal burners, whose existence was not very good. The families who lived together in a too severe climate, both winter and summer, could not find solution to the incessant conflict of personalities. Territorial ambition reached inordinate proportions in the continual desire to escape the atmosphere. The men sold their wheelbarrows of coal in the most important town in the area and return. Women, meanwhile, fed their rancor. There was rivalry in everything from the price of coal to the bank of the church. And over all was wind, too relentless to tense nerves. There were epidemics of suicide and frequent cases of insanity, often homicidal.
I passed a part of the evening when the pastor was looking for a bag that dumped a mountain of acorns on the table. He began to look one by one, with great concentration, separating the good from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I offered to help. But he said that it was his job. And indeed, seeing the care that he spent, so I did not insist. That was our whole conversation. When there were separate enough good acorns, separated by tens, while the smallest was removed and the cracks that had thus far the most carefully examined. When he had selected one hundred acorns perfect, rested and went to sleep.
I felt a great peace be with this man, and the next day I asked if I could stay there another day. He found it natural, or to be more precise, I got the impression that there was nothing that could change. I did not want to stay to rest, but because I wanted to get to know this better. He opened the pen and led his flock to graze. Before leaving, he dipped his bag of acorns in a bucket of water.
I realized that rather than stick, took an iron rod as thick as my thumb and meters long. Relaxing walk, I followed a path parallel to yours without seeing me. His herd was in a valley. He left him in charge of the dog, and came to where I was. I was afraid that I would blame me for my indiscretion, but it was not that far from going in that direction and he invited me to go with him if he had nothing better to do. We climb to the crest of the mountain, about one hundred meters.
He started nailing his iron rod into the ground, making a hole in the acorn which introduced a hole to fill after. He was planting an oak tree. I asked if this land belong to him, but he said no. I assumed that was owned by the community, or perhaps belonged to unknown people. He did not care at all to know that. He planted acorns with great care. After the midday meal resumed his planting. I gather that I was quite insistent in my questions, as agreed to answer. He had been planted one hundred trees a day for three years in this desert. He had planted a few hundred thousand. Of those, only twenty thousand had sprouted. Of those expecting to lose half because of rodents or the unpredictable designs of Providence. At the end would be ten thousand trees to grow where before there had grown anything.
That was when I began to calculate how old this man was. He was clearly more than fifty years. Fifty-five told me. His name was Elzeard Bouffier. He had at one time a farm in the flat, where he organized his life. He lost his only son, his wife. He had withdrawn into solitude, and his dream was to live quietly with his sheep and his dog. He believed that the land was dying for lack of trees. He added that it had no obligation as important, he had decided to remedy this situation.
Since then, despite my youth, I had a lonely life, he also understood the lonely spirits. But my youth was pushing me to consider the future in relation to myself and to search for some happiness. I told him that in thirty years the oaks would be magnificent. He replied simply that if God will preserve life, in thirty years people would planted many more, and ten thousand are now nothing more than a droplet of water into the sea.
Also now studying the reproduction of beech seedlings and had an understanding. The seedlings, which guarded the sheep with a fence, they were beautiful. It was also considering birches planted in the valleys where there was some moisture near the soil surface.
The next day we parted.
A year later started the First World War, in which I was enrolled for the next five years. A "foot soldier" barely had time to think about trees, and indeed the thing itself made little impression on me. I had considered a hobby, something like a stamp collection, and forgot.
At the end of the war, I had only two things: a small compensation for the demobilization, and a great desire to breathe fresh air for a while. And just for this reason I took the road back to the "barren land".
The landscape had not changed. However, beyond the abandoned town, a glimpse in the distance some sort of gray fog that covered the mountaintops like a carpet. The previous day had suddenly started to remember the pastor who planted trees. "Ten thousand oaks-dealing really well thought-space." As I had seen many men die during those five years, did not expect to find Elzeard Bouffier alive, especially because at the age of twenty one sees men over fifty as old people preparing to die ... But he was not dead, but rather the opposite: he was extremely agile and clear: he had changed jobs and now had only four sheep, but instead one hundred hives. He got rid of the sheep because they threatened the young trees. I said, and saw for myself that the war had not bothered at all. Planting trees had continued undisturbed. The oaks of 1910 were then ten years and were higher than any of us two. They offered an impressive spectacle. I stayed with open mouth, and he did not speak, spent the entire day in silence for their forest. The three sections measuring eleven miles long and three wide.
He persevered in his plan, extended to the limit of sight, confirmed. I taught with beautiful birch was planted five years (i.e. in 1915), when I was fighting at Verdun. Had been planted in all the valleys in which he had sensed that there was, appropriate humidity near the surface of the earth. They were delicate as young, and were also very well established.
It seemed that nature had made on its behalf a number of changes and reactions, then just continued with determination and simplicity in its work. When we returned to town, I saw water running in streams that had been dried in the memory of all the men of the area. This was the most impressive of all the series of reactions: the streams ran dry a long time now with a flow of fresh water.
The wind also helped to scatter seeds. But the transformation had developed so gradually that could be undertaken without causing any astonishment. Hunters deep in the bush in search of hares or wild boars, of course noticed the sudden growth of small trees, but attributed to a whim of nature. So nobody bothered Elzeard Bouffier’s work. If he had been detected, would have had opposition. But he was undetectable. No inhabitant of the people, nor anyone in the administration of the province, would have imagined such a magnificent generosity and perseverance.
To get a better idea of this exceptional character, one must not forget that Elzeard worked in total solitude, so that total by the end of his life lost the habit of talking, perhaps because he did not see the need for it.
In 1933, he was visited by a ranger who notified him of an order prohibiting fire, for fear of endangering the growth of this natural forest. This was the first time he told the man he had seen a forest grow spontaneously. At that time, Bouffier've planted in a location 12 kilometers from his house, and to avoid the ideas and forth (as it then 75 years old), planned to build a stone hut on the plantation.
In 1935 a government delegation went to examine the "natural forest". Composed a senior Forest Service, a deputy and several technicians. Established a lengthy and completely useless, finally decided that something should be done ... and fortunately nothing was done except one thing that was useful: the whole forest was put under state protection and acquisition of coal from the trees was prohibited. Indeed it was impossible not to be captivated by the beauty of those young trees full of energy, which will surely spell the deputy.
In the same direction it had come, the slopes were covered with trees six to seven meters in height. I still remembered the look of the land in 1913, a desert ... and now, a quiet and regular work, the fresh mountain air and vigorous, balanced and, above all, serenity of mind, had given to this wonderful old man in poor health. I wondered how many more hectares of land were covered with trees.
It was through this man that not only the region but also the happiness of Bouffier was protected. They delegated three rangers to work to protect the forest, and urged them to resist and refuse the wine bottles, bribery of coal.
The only danger was during the Second World War. As the cars running on gas by generators that burn wood, never had enough firewood. The cutting of trees began in 1940, but the area was so far from any train station that there was no danger. The pastor does not know anything. He was thirty kilometers away, quietly planting.
The bus left me in Vergons. In 1913 this hamlet of ten or twelve houses had three inhabitants, creatures somewhat backward almost hated one another, subsisting traps to catch animals, close to the conditions of primitive man. All the surroundings were full of nettles that snake through the ruins of abandoned houses. Their condition was hopeless, and a situation rarely predisposes to virtue.
Everything had changed, even the air. Instead of the harsh dry winds that used to blow and now ran a gentle and fragrant breeze. A sound like water came from the mountain. It was the wind in the forest, but was surprised to hear the authentic sound of moving water in streams and backwaters. I saw that he had built a fountain flowing with merry hum, and what surprised me most was that someone had planted a linden beside him, a style that should be four years, already in full bloom as a symbol of rebirth irrefutable.
Vergons was the result of this type of work that needs hope, hope that he had returned. The ruins and the walls were gone, and five houses had been restored. Now there were twenty-five inhabitants. Four of them were young couples. The new houses, freshly whitewashed, were surrounded by gardens where vegetables and flowers were growing in an orderly confusion. Cabbages and roses, daisies and leeks, celery and anemones were the ideal to live.
From this site I kept walking. The war, at the end, had not allowed the full blooming of life, but the spirit of Elzeard stayed there. In the lower slopes I saw small fields of barley and rice, and at the bottom of the green valley meadows.
It only took eight years since then for the whole landscape to shine with health and prosperity. Where before it had ruined farms were now, the old streams, fed by rains and snows that the forest attracts flowed again. Its water sources and flow feed on carpets fresh mint. Gradually, the village had been revitalized. People from other places where land was more expensive had settled there, bringing their youth and their mobility. The streets were limited because men and women were poor, boys and girls began to laugh and have recovered a taste for excursions.
So when I reflect on the man only by his armed forces physical and moral, able to emerge from the desert land of Canaan, I am convinced that despite all, humanity is admirable. When you rebuild the compelling greatness of spirit and kindness and tenacity necessary to produce that result, I invaded a boundless respect for that old man and allegedly illiterate, one who completed a task worthy of God.
(Elzeard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the Hospice of Banon).