My rating: 4 of 5 stars
First published over fifteen years ago, The Man Who Planted Trees fell into my hands via the internet only a month ago. I saw the title on another blog listing must-read stories.
To see a human being reveal really exceptional qualities one must be able to observe his activities over many years.
The tale is simple enough and is more of a non-fiction essay or a travel essay than a story. A man recounts his travels through a rather primitive region of the Alps and his encounter with Elzeard Bouffier--a man planting trees.
If these activities are completely unselfish; if the idea motivating them is unique in its magnanimity; if it is quite certain they have never looked for any reward...
The author introduces himself to Bouffier who extends basic hospitality to the traveler. We learn that Bouffier walks the barren countryside of his region and plants trees by the tens of thousands--it is his self-proclaimed life's work. He collects acorns and painstakingly studies them, planting only those without cracks or damage. Bouffier also takes beech saplings and places them in lowland areas where he believes the proper amount of moisture will help them thrive.
and if in addition they have left visible traces on the world--
Author Jean Giono writes that he returned to visit Bouffier at least once a year with the exception of those years when he served his country in war.
then one may say, without fear of error
The essay concludes simply enough--Giono reports that Bouffier died peacefully and with the exception of the author, almost anonymously. After 40 years of patiently transforming a region of the world, tens of thousands of trees thriving under his will brought wildlife, water, and families back to land.
that one is in the presence of an unforgettable character.
While I have provided a basic plot summary, I do not feel I have spoiled any of it. Of utmost importance is reading the afterword by the author's daughter, Aline Giono. This sheds tremendous light on the background for the essay, her father, and Elzeard Bouffier.
What I can say without spoiling any of it, is that the essay was spurred on by a request by Reader's Digest in 1953. They asked Giono to contribute to a regular feature about extraordinary people. So, while first published in 1996 the essay germinated almost 60 years ago.
The essay and the story behind the essay are both worthy of consideration in your middle school or high school classroom. I can see discussions centered around first-hand accounts, primary research sources, travel essays, nonfiction essays, fiction, the challenge of checking sources, in addition to writing which is just so simple and well-crafted. The writing itself serves as a great model for young people either writing fiction or non-fiction.
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