Giving It Away

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“Live for yourself, you will live in vain. Live for others, you will live again.” – Bob Marley, “Pass It On”

Elzéard Bouffier was a shepherd who brought a whole blighted district in Provence, in the foothills of the Alps back to life with forty years of faithful tree planting. Every day, he rose before dawn and headed out, planting one tree at a time. He changed the world. Where life had been a cold, grim struggle, the trees made the weather more pleasant, brought rain, and raised groundwater levels. Streams returned; people returned to a now-beautiful place that had been a wasteland. The residents never knew about the old man who had made it all possible for them.

Elzéard Bouffier was very special, but then, he is a fictional character. He features in a short book by Jean Giono called The Man Who Planted Trees, published in 1953 and translated into dozens of languages. It is Giono’s best known work worldwide and was made into an award-winning animated movie.

Giono made the book widely available by giving it away. He took no royalties. Anyone who wanted to translate, publish, or make a movie of it could do it for free. He said his goal was to “make trees likeable, or more specifically, make planting trees likeable…It is one of my texts of which I am the proudest. It does not bring me one cent and that is why it is doing the very thing for which it was written.” (Well-deserved italics mine.)

The power of giving. The Man Who Planted Trees was fiction, but it’s not anymore. Local governments undertook tree planting in Provence and restored the actual land and climate as Bouffier did in the book. Meanwhile, people have embodied Bouffier all over the world.

In India, when Jadav Payeng was sixteen years old, he was walking on a 1,300 acre sandbar in the Brahmaputra River, near his home in the Assam District. A flood had washed dozens of snakes onto the island, where they died.

“The snakes died in the heat, without any tree cover,” he told the Times of India in 2012. “I sat down and wept over their lifeless forms. I alerted the forest department and asked them if they could grow trees there. They said nothing would grow there. Instead, they asked me to try growing bamboo. There was nobody to help me. Nobody was interested.”

Payeng stopped going to school and moved on to the island. He watered and tended the bamboo, read about and did everything he could to improve the soil, including bringing ants in a bag from his home village. Then he started planting trees. He has kept it up for 30 years.

The island is now a beautiful forest. Animals have returned, including rhinos, birds, deer and Bengal tigers.  Payeng raises a few cows there and supports his family and his forestry by selling their milk in the city.

Has this been a worthwhile way to spend his life? Payeng apparently thinks so, because at age 47, he has found another 1,300 acre sand island and plans to do it again. That will take him up to age 77, but he says, “I am optimistic about it.”

The more I think about this story, the more awed I become. It all started with compassion for a bunch of dead snakes. How many people would have been so motivated by the plight of reptiles? Yet that motivation has created life.

There must have been times he wondered “what am I doing here?” Trees failed. Life on the island could be lonely. But he did what he felt called to do. He has changed his corner of the world in a beautiful way, and in the interviews I read, he sounds happy and at peace. He is poor, but he is not a hermit. He has family and friends. He looks healthy. He seems to blend his giving with his life seamlessly.

In Kerala State, Abdul Karim brought water and fertility back to several villages by re-growing a forest on 32 acres of barren hills. He started in 1997, putting down his life savings to buy 5 acres of desert. Landowners thought he was a fool for envisioning a forest on land they considered useless.

But it was his dream to bring back the “Kaavu,” the sacred groves that all Indian villages had long ago. Karim had never seen one, but says he had been told of them as a child. “I think I had subconsciously yearned for one,” he says.  Eventually, he bought 32 acres.

According to the magazine Good News India, Karim started planting saplings in whatever cracks he could find between rocks. People in the forestry department said he was mad. His own extended family members called the plan “stupid.”

For the first three or four years, he had to bring in water by motorbike, before and after his work as a travel agent.  Trees kept dying in the dry heat, and he kept trying again. After three years, he had little to show for it but a few small saplings. He was close to giving up.

Then God sent him a message.  There was an abandoned well on his property that gave about 5 liters of water, then needed long hours to recharge to even that pitiful level.

“One day, after three or four years, I noticed the water level in the well starting to rise,” he says. “I took that as a sign and started planting everywhere I could find.” There was still nothing a passerby could see for all Karim’s efforts, but he knew he was on the right track.

Now the trees he planted have turned his hill into a forest sponge that provides water for surrounding farms in a 10 kilometer radius. All manner of animals and plants have returned, including some valuable medicinal herbs. Nearby villages have come back to life.

It has taken 25 years. Most of the profits of his travel business have gone into his forest, but he told Friday Magazine of the United Arab Emirates that he believes it has all been worth it. Scientists come to study his forest; eco-tourists to enjoy it. He gets to speak at ecology conferences around the world. The government is looking at ways to replicate his forest on other barren hillsides, of which India has many.

He lives in a small house in his forest with his wife and two of his children and can’t imagine relocating. “I wanted to leave behind something that I had created for the next generation,” he says.  “For sanity and generosity of spirit, we should be able to witness nature at its unceasing, rejuvenating work.”

What Does This Mean to Us?

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3 Responses to Giving It Away

  1. Donna says:

    At a point in one’s life – or in some niche in one’s life – it stops being about yourself and starts being about other people. I used to think this had to do with maturity, or with career stage, but I don’t think that any more. It works for everyone. When I speak with students about leadership, I ask them to reflect on some time they helped another person succeed, for example, as a tutor or study partner; then to take that as a touchstone for their own growth as a mentor.

  2. sekani says:

    For me the patience is the hard part

  3. Mathias says:

    I was struck by the subtle need for small steps in both stories of planting in India. I imagine it is like this in many cases: in places where trees are most needed, they will not grow on their own. It may be necessary to plant other vegetation first. As you mentioned, in (re-)establishing abundance, there are few shortcuts, much effort, and the most reliable product is joy.

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