While Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” deservedly endures as a bookshelf standard, Giono’s wisp of a gem has long been in limbo. It shouldn’t be. Published in 1954, it tells the story of a young man who hikes through the Alps to Provence, over “barren and colorless land,” seeking to clear his head, only to stumble across Elzéard Bouffier, a devoted, solitary farmer who has made it his task to transform a wasteland with trees.
The laconic Elzéard has no idea to whom the land he plants on belongs, but property isn’t his concern: life’s creation. The narrator meets the “shepherd tree planter” first in 1913, returning after the ravages of World War I. But Elzéard verdant world is pristine. His trees, symbols of a larger hope, are fruitful and multiplying. “One of God’s athletes,” he defies age and plants on, his seedlings slowly growing into adult forests. The renewed greenness revives villages.
The narrator’s reaction, over the years, is one of awe. “When you remember that all this had sprung from the hands and the soul of one man, without technical resources, you understood that man could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.”
Giono’s allegory is a timeless product of its times, in which two world wars appeared to celebrate savagery over the possibility of good intentions. By creating Elzéard, Giono responds to that bleakness. There is good, he insists, and it can exist of itself, in service to an immutable system of values —”perseverance in a magnificent generosity.” Though little longer than magazine essay, its exaltation of inspired human purpose, unconnected to celebrity or reward, remains transcendent. Of the story, Giono (1895-1970) once said: “It does not bring me one cent and that is why it is doing the very thing for which it was written.”