Bouffier's gift

I was flipping through a winter edition of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds magazine, Birds, idly scanning the odd paragrah here and there, when I found myself immersed in one of the most moving, thought-provoking true stories I have ever read. In 1913, wrote Jean Giono, he was on a walking holiday in a barren, treeless wild part of Provence, so inhospitable the inhabitants had moved out. Springs and streams had dried up and nothing grew but wild lavender. But for three years an old French shepherd, Elzeard Bouffier, had been planting trees in this wilderness, thousands of them. He felt the land was dying for want of trees and ``having no very pressing business of his own he had resolved to remedy this state of affairs.''

Two world wars later, which Elzeard Bouffier ignored, Giono described the landscape again. ``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. . . . On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms testifying to a happy and comfortable life. The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again.''

He concluded ``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.''

When I finished reading the lengthy article, extracted from Development Forum, I sat for some moments gazing with awe at the winter tracery of trees I can see from every window. They have for me a cathedral-like aura and I now sensed a patient benevolence.

We need trees. We need them for their shape, pattern, and grandeur, for their shade and shelter, their place in the balance of things. Deep down we know, and have always known, this balance must not be neglected. That is why the sound of chainsaw and sight of falling trees cause a spasm of pain, a pain we may smother, but which we should heed. It is a primeval warning.

Sitting there I recalled the only time I have ever found a spring bubbling up through the earth. The small, persistent drops of water, pushing their way to the surface, were cradled between two gnarled roots of a tree. As a child I was pleased by the ``coincidence'' and charm of it. Now I realize there was no coincidence, but an indication of the balance and the gift. What I had just read illustrated more vividly and urgently than any scientific discourse that trees attract water, encourage an up-welling to the surface, provide shade to slow down evaporation, soften the impact of searing wind.

In Britain we are still relatively well stocked with trees, so there is a tendency to permit felling rather heedlessly. There isn't much support for those individuals who, with a heightened sensitivity for the awesome life span of a tree, question its destruction. They are considered eccentric or troublemakers. I think I'm about to join them. We have been invited to help protect an ancient copse, threatened by the proposed extension of a golf course. I have read enough to know that the type of trees in a hedgerow or wood gives a good indication of its age, and I know the intricate life cycles that are supported by such a group of trees. I am also aware of how long it takes for a tree even to start to grow.

A few years ago my daughter and I cherished an acorn in a jar of water. After several months the tap root split the shell and began its steady growth downwards. We transferred it to a flower pot for another year, until the fibrous feeding roots became established. During this time the delicate stem that will, incredibly, swell into a gnarled trunk, pushed its way upwards, producing two or three leaves. The following summer it had grown a little more and added another leaf or two. The next spring we felt it was ready, and just about big enough to be planted out.

Feeling proud of our eight-inch sapling, we found a patch on the Green near, but not too near, some adolescent oaks, cleared away the grass, and set it in the earth, noting with surprise how long the tap root had grown. It looked very, very small with the tall grass towering around. It has survived so far. We visit periodically. Each summer it produces more leaves and is growing, slowly.

Perhaps everyone who is connected with the business of destroying trees, or who instructs other people to, should be required to grow a tree first. A pause for several years would give us all time to think. Susan Morrison

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