When I consider that a single man, relying only on his own simple physical and moral resources, was able to transform a desert into this land of Canaan, I am convinced that despite everything, the human condition is truly admirable. ~ The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono.
Each day while he tended his flocks, the shepherd drove a heavy steel rod into the soil on the rolling hills, dropped an acorn, covered and tamped it down. In his day pack the old man carried 100 perfect acorns, sorted through in silence the night before. Tomorrow he would repeat this work—planting trees while his sheep grazed.
Elzéard Bouffier determined the land was ravaged for lack of trees. Wind whipped across its tortured slopes after years of war and human exploitation. Throughout WWI and WWII—while the fates of younger men lay in bloody trenches—the elder Frenchman methodically played out his chosen vocation, planting sturdy oaks, a copse of beeches and orchards of apples.
“The Man Who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness” was published in Vogue Magazine in 1957. Jean Giono—a celebrated French writer—created a story that awakened the American passion for wilderness at a time when environmental degradation burdened the public mind.
About that time a teenager from Kenya travelled to America to study ecology. Raised in a traditional Kikuyu family in the northern hill country of Kenya, her mother had taught her to never take firewood from the fig tree because it was sacred. God dwells in the fig tree, her mother cautioned. Wangari never questioned her mother. But, Catholic missionaries later convinced the villagers that God did not live in the fig and to destroy the sacred groves to build new churches which they did.
Ten years later when Wangari Maathai returned to her homeland she finally understood the wisdom of the Kikuyu. Without the fig groves’ deep root systems, the hill country had eroded, turning clear streams to muddy pools. Without clean water the community suffered from disease, hunger and poverty—unknown in past times. The Kikuyu lost an ancient environmental protection policy.
By the time Wangari came to a leadership position in her government, forests that once blanketed Kenya were being harvested on a massive scale. Her path to Deputy Director of Environment and Natural Resources began humbly in 1977 when she returned to her native country. Wangari realized that the people and land were being harmed by expedient government policies that promoted logging for quick profit in international markets. Women in particular were impacted by extremes of drought and floods, erosion and loss of the land’s productivity. They were the traditional farmers.
Being a practical woman, Wangari thought, “We can plant trees.” In 1977 she began The Greenbelt Movement through which thousands of women nurtured seedlings to restore the land to healthy functioning. Wangari broke all the barriers: the first African woman to earn a doctorate degree; the first Kenyan woman elected to parliament. She challenged the judgment of men in power. For her efforts she was brutally beaten and imprisoned. Each time the women of the Greenbelt Movement suffered violence at the hand of government, they planted more trees. They were simply unstoppable.
Today, forty-five million trees have taken root in Kenya and forests grow over the stumps of a less enlightened time. Streams and rivers have returned clear and broad after nearly four decades of diligent action and a simple idea: plant trees. A wrong was righted.
Jean Giono—a pacifist—wrote about the wanton destruction of life during two world wars. He, too, was imprisoned. “The Man Who Planted Trees” was perhaps his way of righting the insanity that swept across Europe. The Greenbelt Movement became the manifestation of his vision.
Wangari probably did not know about Giono’s story when it was first published. She was just a practical woman who saw a simple solution to a complex problem much like the shepherd. Perhaps the stubborn determination to keep dreaming and the stubborn determination to make it true go hand in hand—flip sides of a coin. Yet, we know that diligence can be the handmaiden of either positive or negative action, as history records. Thank God diligence leverages the greater force when applied to a just action.
Author’s Note: Chelsea Green published a special edition of The Man Who Planted Trees in 2005. The introduction was written by none other than Wagari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Laureate. She passed away on September 25, 2011.