So that the character of a human being reveals really exceptional qualities, it is necessary to have good fortune to be able to observe its action during long years. If this action is stripped of any selfishness, if the idea which directs it is of a generosity without example, if it is absolutely certain that it did not seek of reward nowhere and that with the surplus it left on the world of the visible marks, one is then, without risk of errors, in front of an unforgettable character.
There are approximately forty years, I made a long race with foot, on absolutely unknown heights of the tourists, in this very old area of the Alps which penetrates in Provence.
This area is delimited in south-east and the south by the middle price of the Durance, between Sisteron and Mirabeau; in north by the higher course of Drome, from its source to Die; in the west by the plains of Comtat Venaissin and the buttresses of the Mount-Ventoux. It includes/understands all the northern part of the department of the Low-Alps, the south of Drome and a small enclave of Vaucluse.
It was, at the moment when I undertaken my long walk in these deserts, of the naked and monotonous moors, about 1200 to 1300 meters of altitude. It pushed only wild lavenders there.
I crossed this country in his greater width and, after three days of walk, I was in a desolation without example. I camped beside a skeleton of abandoned village. I did not have any more water since the day before and it was necessary for me to find some. These houses agglomerated, though in ruin, like an old wasps' nest, made me think that it must y have had there, in time, a fountain or a well. It there had a fountain well, but dries. The five to six houses, without roof, corroded wind and of rain, the small vault with the collapsed bell-tower, were arranged like are the houses and the vaults in the alive villages, but any life had disappeared.
It was one fine day of June with large sun, but on these grounds without shelter and high in the sky, the wind blew with an unbearable brutality. Its grondements in the carcasses of the houses was those of a deer disturbed in its meal.
I had to raise camp A five hours of walk from there, I had still not found water and nothing could give me the hope to find some. It was everywhere the same dryness, the same woody grasses. It seemed me to see in the distance a small black silhouette, upright. I taken it for the trunk of a solitary tree. Any chance, I moved towards it. It was a shepherd. About thirty sheep laid down on the extreme ground rested close to him.
It made me drink with its gourd and, a little later, it led me to its sheep-fold, in an undulation of the plate. It drew its water - excellent - from a natural hole, very deep, above which it had installed a rudimentary winch. This man spoke little. It is the fact of the recluses, but one felt it sure him and trustful in this insurance. It was strange in this country stripped of all. It did not live a hut but a true stone-built house where one saw very well how its personal work had rapiécé the ruin which it had found there on his arrival. Its roof was solid and tight. The wind which struck it made on the tiles the noise of the sea on the beaches.
Its household was in order, its washed crockery, its swept parquet floor, its lubricated rifle; its soup boiled on fire. I noticed whereas it was as shaven expenses, as all its buttons were firmly bent, that its clothing was reprisés with the meticulous care which makes the recoveries invisible.
It made me divide its soup and, as after I offered my joke with tobacco to him, it says to me that it did not smoke. Its dog, silencer like, were benevolent for him without lowness.
It had been heard immediately that I would spend the night there; the village nearest was still at more than one day and half of walk. And, with the surplus, I knew perfectly the character of the rare villages of this area. There are of them four or five dispersed far from/to each other on the blanks these heights, in the coppices of white oaks at the any end of the motor-roads. They are inhabited by loggers who make charcoal. They are places where one saw badly. The tight families the ones against the others in this climate which is of an excessive roughness, as well the summer as the winter, exaspèrent their selfishness in closed vase. Unreasoned ambition y disproportion, in the continuous desire to escape from this place.
The men will carry their coal to the city with their trucks, then turn over. Most solid qualities crack under this perpetual Scottish shower. The women mijotent rancours. There is competition on all, as well for the sale of coal as for the bench on the church, for the virtues which are fought between them, for the defects which are fought between them and for the general fray of the defects and the virtues, without rest. By on top, the wind also without rest irritates the nerves. There are epidemics of suicides and many cases of madnesses, almost always fatal.
The shepherd who did not smoke went to seek a small bag and poured on the table a heap of nipples. He put himself to examine them one after the other with much of attention, separating the goods from bad. I smoked my pipe. I proposed to help it. It says to me that it was its business. Indeed: seeing the care which it put at this work, I did not insist. It was all our conversation. When it had side of the goods a heap of rather large nipples, it counted them per packages of ten. By doing this, it still eliminated the small fruits or those which were slightly cracked, because it examined them of fort near. When it thus had in front of him hundred perfect nipples, it stopped and we went to lie down.
The company of this man gave peace. I asked for the following day to him the permission to rest all the day at his place. It found it any naturalness, or, more exactly, it gave the impression to me that nothing could disturb it. This rest was not absolutely obligatory for me, but I was intrigued and I wanted more. It made leave its herd and it led it to the grazing ground. Before leaving, it soaked in a water bucket the small bag where it had put the nipples carefully chosen and counted.
I noticed that as a stick, it carried a large like the inch and long iron rod of approximately a meter fifty. I did that which walks while resting and I followed a road parallel with his. The grazing ground of its animals was in a content of combe. It left the small herd to the guard of the dog and it went up towards the place where I was held. I be afraid which it came to reproach me my indiscretion but at all: it was its road and it invited me to accompany it if I did not have anything of to better do. It went to two hundred meters from there, on the height.
Arrived at the place where it wished outward journey, it started to plant its iron rod in the ground. It thus made a hole in which it put a nipple, then it stopped the hole. It planted oaks. I asked to him whether the ground belonged to him. It answered me that not. Did it know with which it was? It did not know. It that it was a communal ground, or perhaps, was it supposed property of people who were not concerned with it? He did not worry to know the owners. It thus planted hundred nipples with an extreme care.
After the lunch, it started again with sorting its seed. I put, I believe, enough of insistence in my questions since it answered it. For three years it had planted trees in this loneliness. It had planted a hundred and thousand of them. On the a hundred and thousand, twenty thousand had left. On these twenty thousand, it still hoped to lose half of it, because of the rodents or all that there is the impossible one to envisage in the intentions of Providence. Remained ten thousand oaks which were going to push in this place where there was nothing before.
It is at this time there that I worried about the age of this man. He had obviously more than fifty years. Fifty-five, he says me. He was called Elzéard Bouffier. He had had a farm in the plains. It had carried out its life there. He had lost his only son, then his wife. He had withdrawn himself in loneliness where he took pleasure to live slowly, with its ewes and its dog. He had judged that this country died for lack of trees. He added that, not having very important occupations, he had solved to cure in this state of affairs.
Leading myself to this moment, in spite of my youth, a solitary life, I could touch with delicacy with the hearts of the recluses. However, I made a fault. My youth, precisely, forced me to imagine the future according to myself and of a certain research of happiness. I say to him that, in thirty years, these ten thousand oaks would be splendid. It answered me very simply that, if God lent life to him, in thirty years, it would have planted others so much of them that these ten thousand would be like a water drop in the sea.
It studied already, moreover, the reproduction of the beeches and it had close to its house a seedbed resulting from the faînes. The subjects which it had protected from its sheep by a barrier out of netting, were of any beauty. It also thought of birches for the funds where, it says me, a certain moisture slept with a few meters of the surface of the ground.
We separated the following day.
The year according to, there was the war of 14 in which I was engaged during five years. An infantryman could hardly think on it of trees. To tell the truth, the thing even had not marked in me: I had regarded it as a hobby-horse, a stamp collection, and had forgotten.
Left the war, I was with the head of a tiny premium of demobilization but with the great desire to breathe a little fresh air. It is without preconceived idea - except that one - that I begun again the way of these deserted regions.
The country had not changed. However, beyond the died village, I saw in the distance a kind of gray fog which covered the heights like a carpet. Since the day before, I had gone back to think of this shepherd grower of trees. “Ten thousand oaks, I said to me, occupy really a very broad space”.
I had seen dying too many people during five years not to imagine easily the death of Elzéar Bouffier, the more so as, when one has twenty of them, one considers the men of fifty as old men in whom it any more but does not remain to be died. It had not died. It was even extremely green. It had changed trade. It had nothing any more but four ewes but, on the other hand, a hundred hives. It had gotten rid of the sheep which put in danger its plantations of trees. Because, he (and I say me noted it), it had worried at all about the war. It had imperturbably continued to plant.
The oaks of 1910 were then ten years old and were higher than me and than him. The spectacle was impressive. I was literally private of word and, as did not speak to him, we spent all the day in silence to walk us in his forest. It had, in three sections, eleven kilometers length and three kilometers in its greater width. When one remembered that all had left with the hands and of the heart of this man - without average techniques - one understood that the men could be as effective as God in other fields as the destruction.
He had followed his idea, and the beeches which arrived to me at the shoulders, widespread as far as the eye can see, testified some. The oaks were thick and had exceeded the age where they were at the thank you of the rodents; as for the intentions of Providence itself, to destroy work created, it would be necessary for him to have from now on recourse to the cyclones. It showed me admirable thickets of birches which went back to five years, i.e. of 1915, of the time when I fought in Verdun. It had made them occupy all the funds where it suspected, with good reason, which there were moisture almost with ground flower. They were tender like teenagers and very decided. Creation seemed, moreover, to take place in chains. It was not concerned with it; it continued obstinately its task, very simple. But while going down again by the village, I live to run water in brooks which, of memory of man, had always been dry. It was the most formidable operation of reaction which it was given to me to see. These dry brooks had formerly carried water, in very old times. Some of these sad villages of which I spoke at the beginning about my account were built on the sites of old Gallo-Roman villages of which there remained still traces, in which the archaeologists had excavated and they had found hooks at places where at the twentieth century, one was obliged to have recourse to cisterns to have a little water.
The wind also dispersed certain seeds. At the same time as water reappeared reappeared the willows, the wickers, the meadows, the gardens, the flowers and a certain reason of living.
But the transformation took place so slowly that it entered the practice without causing astonishment. The hunters which went up in lonelinesses to the continuation of hares or wild boars had noted the expansion of the small trees well but they had put it on the account of the natural mischievousnesses of the ground. This is why nobody touched with the work of this man. If it had been suspected, it would have been opposed. It was above suspicion. Who could have imagined, in the villages and the administrations, such an obstinacy in the most splendid generosity?
From 1920, I never remained more than one year without returning visit in Elzéard Bouffier. I never saw it bending nor to doubt. And yet, God knows if God pushes even there! I did not make the account of his vexations. It is imagined well however that, for a similar success, it was necessary to overcome the adversity; that, to ensure the victory of such a passion, it was necessary to fight with despair. It had, during one year, planted more than ten thousand maples. They all died. The year according to, it gave up maples to take again the beeches which succeeded still better than the oaks.
To have an about exact idea of this exceptional nature, it should not be forgotten that it was exerted in a total loneliness; if total that, towards the end of its life, it had lost the practice to speak. Or, perhaps, didn't it see the need of it?
In 1933, it accepted the visit of a flabbergasted forester. This civil servant him intima the order not to make fire outside, of fear of endangering the growth of this natural forest. It was the first time, tells him this naive man, whom one saw a forest pushing all alone. At that time, it was going to plant beeches with twelve kilometers of its house. To avoid the way of return ticket - because it was then seventy-five years old - it planned to build a stone hut on the same spot of its plantations. What it did the year according to.
In 1935, a true administrative delegation came to examine the “natural forest”. There were a large character of National Forestry Commission, a deputy, technicians. One pronounced many useless words. One decided to do something and, fortunately, one did nothing, if not the only useful thing: to put the forest under the safeguard of the State and to prohibit which one comes to carbonize there. Because it was impossible not to be subjugated by the beauty of these young trees in full health. And it exerted its power of seduction on the deputy himself.
I had a friend among the forest captains who was of the delegation. I explained the mystery to him. One day of the week according to, we went both in the search of Elzéard Bouffier. We found it in full work, with twenty kilometers of the place where the inspection had taken place.
This forest captain was not my friend for nothing. He knew the value of the things. There could remain quiet. I offered the few eggs which I had brought in present. We divided our snack into three and a few hours passed in the dumb contemplation of the landscape.
The side from where we came was covered with trees from six to seven meters in height. I remembered the aspect of the country in 1913: the desert… Peaceful and regular work, the sharp air heights, the frugality and especially the serenity of the heart had given to this old man an almost solemn health. It was an athlete of God. I wondered how much hectares it was still going to cover trees.
Before leaving, my friend made simply a short suggestion in connection with certain gasolines to which the ground from here appeared to have to be appropriate. He did not insist. “For the good reason, he says me afterwards, that this catch knows some more than me. ” At the end of one hour of walk - the idea having made its way in him - it added: “It knows some much more than everyone. It found a famous means of being happy! ” It is thanks to this captain that, not only the forest, but the happiness of this man were protected. He made name three guard-foresters for this protection and he terrorized them in such way that they remained insensitive to all the bribes which the loggers could propose.
Work ran a serious risk only during the war of 1939. The cars walking then to the gas generator, there was never enough wood. One started to make cuts in the oaks of 1910, but these districts are so far from all road networks that the company appeared very bad from the financial point of view. It was given up. The shepherd did not have anything considering. He was with thirty kilometers from there, continuing his work peacefully, being unaware of the war of 39 as he had been unaware of the war of 14.
I saw Elzéard Bouffier for the last time in June 1945. It was then eighty seven years old. I had thus taken again the road of the desert, but now, in spite of the dilapidation in which the war had left the country, there was a bus which made the service between the valley of the Durance and the mountain. I put on the account of these relatively fast means of transport the fact that I did not recognize any more the places of my last walks. It also seemed to to me that the route made me pass by new places. I need a name of village to conclude that I was well however in this area formerly in ruin and sorry. The bus unloaded me in Vergons.
In 1913, this hamlet from ten to twelve houses had three inhabitants. They were wild, were hated, lived of hunting for the trap: about in the physical and moral state of the men of prehistory. The nettles devoured around them the abandoned houses. Their condition was without hope. It was only a question for them of awaiting death: situation which hardly predisposes with the virtues.
All was changed. Air itself. Instead of the dry and brutal gusts of wind which accomodated me formerly, a flexible breeze in charge of odors blew. A noise similar to that of water came from the heights: it was that of the wind in the forests. Lastly, more astonishing thing, I heard the true noise of water running in a basin. I live that one had made fountain, that it was abundant and, which touched me more, one had planted close to it a lime which could already have in the four years, already fatty, undeniable symbol of a resurrection.
In addition, Vergons carried the traces of a work for the company of which the hope was necessary. The hope had thus returned. One had cleared the ruins, had cut down the dilapidated sections of wall and had rebuilt five houses. The hamlet counted from now on twenty-eight inhabitants including four young couples. The new houses, rough-cast expenses, were surrounded by vegetable gardens where pushed, mixed but aligned, vegetables and flowers, cabbages and rose trees, leeks and mufflers, celeries and anemones. It was from now on a place where one wanted to live. From there, I made my way with foot. The war which we hardly left had not allowed the complete blooming of the life, but Lazare was out of the tomb. On the lowered blanks of the mountain, I saw small fields of grass barley and rye; at the bottom of the narrow valleys, some meadows made green.
It took only the eight years which separate us from this time so that all the country resplendisse of health and ease. On the site of the ruins which I had seen in 1913, clean farms, rough-cast well rise now, which indicate a happy and comfortable life. The old sources, supplied with the rains and snows which the forests retain, recovered to run. One channeled water of them. Concurrently to each farm, in maple thickets, the basins of the fountains overflow on fresh mint carpets. The villages were rebuilt little by little. A population come from the plains where the ground is sold expensive is fixed in the country, bringing there youth, movement, spirit of adventure. One meets in the ways of the men and the women nourished well, the boys and the girls who can laugh and took again taste with the country festivals. If the old population is counted, unrecognizable since it saw with softness and the new ones come, more than ten thousand people owe their happiness in Elzéard Bouffier.
When I reflect that a man alone, reduced to its simple physical resources and morals, emerge from the desert this country of Canaan was enough to make, I find that, despite everything, the human condition is admirable. But, when I make the account of all that it was necessary of constancy in the eagerness and nobility of soul in generosity to obtain this result, I am taken of an immense respect for this old peasant without culture which knew to conclude this work worthy of God.
Elzéard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 with the old people's home of Banon.