The Man Who Planted Trees is one of my wife’s favourite stories. I was fortunate enough to see the Oscar-winning animated short film with her last year at the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival; I was immediately swept away by the beauty of both movie and message. Although it is a work of fiction, The Man Who Planted Trees is a testament to one man’s ability to bring about hope and happiness for himself and to the world around him.
The story begins in 1913 with the unnamed narrator hiking by foot through Provence, France. During his journey through the desolate and windy valley and the old decaying villages, he by chance encounters a solitary shepherd. Curious about the quiet man named Elzéard Bouffier, the narrator briefly stays with him, discovering that the shepherd had been planting countless acorns in the region over three years.
The young narrator leaves the shepherd, and later fights in the First World War. After the war, he returns to the valley to discover the shepherd has become a beekeeper, but is still hard at work planting oak, beech, and birch trees. By this time, young saplings begin to prosper and new streams emerge in areas that were once dry.
The narrator decides to visit Elzéard Bouffier every year henceforth. Bouffier unceasingly continues slowly and surely with his planting; the area is subtly transformed into a vibrant forest. Forestry officials mistakenly believe that this change is a natural phenomenon. World War II comes and goes, but does not affect the work of Bouffier. After the war, the region becomes a lush green valley that teems with life; the old decaying villages of old give way to restored homes and new families. By the end of the story, the area becomes home to more than ten thousand people, all of whom can attribute their happiness and livelihoods to the life’s work of one uneducated peasant. Bouffier passes away peacefully in 1947.
A Complementary Visual Experience
The animation used in The Man Who Planted Trees is unlike any I have ever come across. The animator, Frédéric Back, employed a restrained animation style that worked in balance with the story told by the narrator (Christopher Plummer). Back stated that “the more you animate, the less your hear, because there is always conflict between the eye and the ear.” (Official website) The swirling pencil sketch style conveyed change, movement, life, and made the film compelling to watch. The animation is a major factor in transforming a great story into a visually moving experience that works with the narrative. This is not something that is easily done; a lot of credit goes to Back’s five years of painstaking work.
Several sequences stayed with me. The first portrays the lives of the charcoal burners and their families in the old broken villages: It captures the bleakness of an environment and a people without hope; the animation grew increasingly disturbing as the narrative depicts the gradual decline from suspicion to backstabbing and madness.
The second sequence was the juxtaposition of the act of tree planting with war. It’s very brief, but I loved how Back portrayed the growth of saplings in a similar fashion as explosions. The imagery of destruction and ruin giving way to one of creation and renewal reminds me of an unforgettable passage in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five:
“Billy turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody again.”
– Slaughterhouse Five, p. 93-94
The final visual imagery that stayed with me is the depiction of Elzéard Bouffier towards the end of his life:
I’m not very well versed in art, but according to Frédéric Back’s official website (now no longer up), the shepherd was drawn in a style similar to a Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait. His incredibly soulful eyes are of a great man, one who has seen a lot, done a lot, and is ready for the next great journey.
Of Hope and Despair
“To plant trees is to give body and life to one’s dream of a better world.” – Russell Page
What I found fascinating in The Man Who Planted Trees was that trees are directly associated with hope and despair. The destruction of the environment and societal breakdown appears to be inextricably linked in the story and in the real world. Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who began the Green Belt Movement in Africa, had this to say in the foreword of the twentieth anniversary edition of the book:
“Like the narrator of the Man who planted trees, I saw human communities restored along with nature. This is not a mystical phenomenon; it is a fact of human existence. Human beings cannot thrive in a place where the natural environment has been degraded.”
– The Man Who Planted Trees, p. viii
Culture cannot survive without nature. We see in Trees the lives of the villagers deprived of natural resources. Forced to subsist in a marginal environment as charcoal burners, they live hard and bitter lives. The narrator comments on the destructive tendencies of a people without hope:
“They were inhabited by charcoalburners, and the living was bad. Families, crowded together in a climate that is excessively harsh both in winter and summer, found no escape from the unceasing conflict of personalities. Irrational ambition reached inordinate proportions in the continual desire to escape. The men took their wagonloads of charcoal to the town, and returned. The soundest characters broke under the perpetual grind. The women nursed their grievances. There was rivalry in everything, over the price of charcoal as over a pew in the church, over warring virtues as over warring vices as well as over the ceaseless combat between virtue and vice. And over all there was the wind, also ceaseless, to rasp upon the nerves. There were epidemics of suicide and frequent cases of insanity, usually homicidal.”
– The Man Who Planted Trees, p. 9-10
We see a transformation after the reforestation efforts of Elzéard Bouffier :
“Everything was changed. Even the air. Instead of the harsh dry winds that used to attack me, a gentle breeze was blowing, laden with scents. A sound like water came from the mountains: it was the wind in the forest. Most amazing of all, I heard the actual sound of water falling into a pool. I saw that a fountain has been built, that it flowed freely and – what touched me most – that someone had planted a linden beside it, a linden that must have been four years old, already in full lead, the incontestable symbol of resurrection.”
– The Man who Planted Trees, p. 30
The act of planting trees is one borne out of hope. In setting out to plant trees, Elzéard Bouffier understood that he was also sowing the seeds for the revitalization of an entire region.
The Role of man: A Forester’s Ethic
I have mentioned previously in this blog that culture cannot survive without nature. But in this case, the reverse is also true: Nature could not survive without culture. I am reminded of the gardener’s ethic presented in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, in particular the following statement:
“The gardener doesn’t take it for granted humanity’s impact on nature will always be negative.”
– Michael Pollan
Left to natural forces, the landscape Bouffier inhabited would be a desert, supporting few species and devoid of hope for people. Tree planting is a positive act of humanity; what Elzéard Bouffier shaped with his own hands was a new landscape created by both nature and culture. This new landscape was an improvement not just for people, but also for nature: Increased biodiversity, enhanced resilience, and new habitats. To the narrator, the actions of Elzéard Bouffier demonstrate the positive influences of humanity:
“When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable. But when I compute the unfailing greatness of spirit and the tenacity of benevolence that it must have taken to achieve this result, I am taken with an immense respect for that old and unlearned peasant who was able to complete a work worthy of God.”
-The Man Who Planted Trees, p. 35
Of Sustainable Happiness
“It is useless work that darkens the heart. The delight of the nursing mother, of the scholar, of the successful hunter, of the good cook, of the skillful maker, of anyone doing needed work and doing it well – this durable joy is perhaps the deepest source of human affection, and of sociality as a whole.”
– The Dispossessed, p. 247
We see in the charcoal burners of Tree that pettiness, ambition, rivalry, and intolerance lie at the root of unhappiness and unsustainable lifestyles. In contrast, Elzéard Bouffier has found, as the forester friend of the narrator exclaims, “a wonderful way to be happy!” (p.26).
Elzéard Bouffier is depicted as someone who is able to live simply with the land. In his silence and his solitude, he has developed a connection to the land without the need to own it. He is willing to adapt his lifestyle from shepherd to beekeeper in order to suit the land’s needs. He does not seek to impose his will on the land, and looks to work with it instead. He understands that the majority of the trees of his work will be lost to the contingencies of nature, but he accepts it as part of his work. Accommodation, cooperation, and acceptance: qualities that are crucial to a healthy and integrated relationship with the more than human world.
What I find special about the character of Elzéard Bouffier is that his actions are not borne out of self-sacrifice. He plants trees not out of egoism, to receive praise for his work from others. The forestry official commented that if Bouffier “had been detected, he would have had opposition”. (p.22)
By lying low he was able to achieve his goal.
But Elzéard also doesn’t plant trees out of altruism with an explicit intent to help others through his tireless work. He plants trees for himself simply because he believes that the land “was dying for want of trees” and that he finds deep satisfaction in the work itself. He does not drive himself to exhaustion. He takes care of himself and his simple needs, and survives to an old age in good health. As the narrator states, “he was one of God’s athletes.” (p. 26)
By working slow he was able to accomplish his task.
Because he does it out of a place between selfishness and selflessness, he doesn’t need acknowledgement from others and he doesn’t burn out. He finds genuine satisfaction and enduring joy in his work of creation, and in so doing finds inexhaustible happiness. More than any fictional character I know, he is able to practice the actions espoused in a powerful passage of the Tao Te Ching:
To bear and not to own;
To act and not lay claim;
To do the work and let it go:
For just letting it go
Is what makes it stay.
(Chapter 2 – Soul Food, Tao Te Ching: An English Version by Ursula K. Le Guin)
Biono, Jean. The Man Who Planted Trees: Twentieth Anniversary Edition. Canada: Chelsea Publishing, 2005.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1997.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York: HarperCollins, 1974.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Dial Press, 1969.
Images and footage of The Man Who Planted Trees © 1987 Radio Canada. All rights reserved.