This beautiful little book turned up in my Christmas stocking this year. As slim as it is, with wood engravings by Harry Brockway and an illuminating afterword by the author’s daughter, it really is a book to be savoured.
The story tells of a chance encounter the narrator has in a desolate, mostly treeless, landscape with a solitary shepherd. He watches the gentle man sort a pile of acorns. “As he did so he discarded those that were too small or had a tiny split; he examined them minutely.”
He then took his chosen acorns, dipped them in water and set out into the wilderness.
And so begins a slow, unfurling tale of a man who plants trees in their hundreds over the span of a lifetime. As the narrator gazes on in wonder, the man covers acres of arid land with seedlings that become saplings that gradually become a forest, altering the landscape, the climate and the temperament of the people who reside there.
Yes, a fable, and one to warm the heart, but, as the author’s daughter Aline reveals in her afterword, one that also gained life of its own. Apparently, readers of this story all over the world have believed it to the extent that wooded areas in countries from Finland to New Zealand have been attributed to a lone shepherd with a quiet, but steadfast, ambition.Which to me reveals that as we work at our computers and lark then sleep in our cities, part of us craves leafiness and dappled light, and longs for someone to safeguard our green spaces, making Giono’s wry wise tale as much about human nature and hope as it is about trees.
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