Thursday, December 11, 2008

"A Magnificent Act of Generosity"

The sooner we get this relief in the hands of the American people, the sooner they can begin to do their job of being good consumers.
-Rep. John A. Boehner, January 2008

J. Russell Smith's vision is inherently and necessarily a democratic one. What he is proposing is not simple; he would protect the hills and make them more productive, not by the mechanical and chemical simplifications that are associated with industrial agriculture, but by complicating the biological pattern of human use. For this, great care, knowledge, and skill would be needed. The good agricultural solution thus presupposes the need for democratic land-ownership, not the plutocracy always implied in the economic and technological determinism of the industrialists. As Smith saw it, "the presence of the landowner is also needed. This is not a job for tenants. Let the tenant go down to the level land which carelessness cannot ruin so quickly."
-Wendell Berry

In The Man Who Planted Trees the narrator arrived at a desolate landscape in Provence. He was taken in by a shepherd who provided a bowl of soup and a place to spend the night. After dinner, the visitor observed the shepherd sorting through a bag of acorns until he had selected one hundred perfect acorns.

The next day, the visitor followed the shepherd on his rounds as he casually, yet carefully, planted each of the acorns. The visitor learned that the shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, had been working steadily at this job:

For three years now he had been planting trees in this solitary way. He had planted one hundred thousand. Of these one hundred thousand, twenty thousand had come up. He counted on losing another half of them to rodents and to everything else that is unpredictable in the designs of Providence. That left ten thousand oaks that would grow in this place where before there was nothing.

Years later, the traveler returned to the once barren hillsides to see them covered with a forest of young oaks. The humble shepherd was still at work. From that time on, the traveler returned often to visit the shepherd and observe the rebirth of a forest and a community:

This creation had the air, moreover, of working by a chain reaction. He had not troubled about it; he went on obstinately with his simple task. But, in going back down to the village, I saw water running in streams that, within living memory, had always been dry. It was the most striking revival that he had shown me. These streams had borne water before, in ancient days.

The wind had also been at work, dispersing certain seeds. As the water reappeared, so too did willows, osiers, meadows, gardens, flowers, and a certain reason to live.

But the transformation had taken place so slowly that it had been taken for granted, without provoking surprise. The hunters who climbed the hills in search of hares or wild boars had noticed the spreading of the little trees, but they set it down to the natural spitefulness of the earth.

That is why no one had touched the work of this man. If they had suspected him, they would have tried to thwart him. But he never came under suspicion: Who among the villagers or the administrators would ever have suspected that anyone could show such obstinacy in carrying out this magnificent act of generosity?

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. But when I take into account the constancy, the greatness of soul, and the selfless dedication that was needed to bring about this transformation, I am filled with an immense respect for this old, uncultured peasant who knew how to bring about a work worthy of God.

The tale of the persistent shepherd might seem simplistic, especially now, when we’re more likely to count on advances in engineering and biotechnology - intervention by the experts - to bring an ailing ecosystem back to life.

One book that has inspired countless would-be Elzéard Bouffiers is J. Russell Smith’s Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture, (1929). I’ve been re-reading this classic, described as “a blueprint for the development of high-yield tree crops [which] proves that vast, untapped food sources can be harvested from common species of North American trees.”

Tree Crops, like The Man Who Planted Trees, promotes the rather unfashionable notion that one person can play a crucial role in the essential work of restoring the damage that’s been done to this planet.

In the first chapter of Tree Crops, the author discusses the loss of fertile farmland to erosion:

Can anything be done about it? Yes, something can be done. Therefore, this book is written to persons of imagination who love trees and love their country, and to those who are interested in the problem of saving natural resources -- an absolute necessity if we are to continue as a great power.

These days, "continuing as a great power" would require us to fill the shopping malls and the car dealers’ showrooms. "Spend more, buy more," is the puzzling prescription for a brighter future. I don't hear anyone say, "Go plant a tree."

Not forever, though. I figure, sooner or later, people living in this land of luxury will once again see themselves as producers, not just consumers. Someday, it will dawn on people that there’s no food consumption without food production…and we all like to eat.

In Tree Crops, Smith proposed an institute of mountain agriculture to tap the vast potential for growing trees as food crops. As he described not only the utilitarian value, but the recreational value of this work, I couldn’t help but contrast his vision with the developers' vision of these mountains as gated golf course communities:

I have altogether something like a hundred varieties of walnuts, hickories, pecans, persimmons, pawpaws, and honey locust on test on my rocky hillside, and I find that I am having an amount of fun out of it that is as perfectly unreasonable and genuine as is the joy that remains for a month or two after making a good drive at golf, catching a big fish, or shooting a deer -- not that I do all of these things.

Experimentation with nut trees is especially to be recommended for people in middle age and upward. One of the pains of advancing years is the declining circle of one's friends. One by one they leave the earth, and the desolating loneliness of old age is felt by the survivors. But the man who loves trees finds that this group of friends (trees) stays with him, getting better, bigger, and more lovable as his years and their years increase.

This perhaps explains the delightful enthusiasm of some of the septuagenarian and octogenarian tree lovers whom I know and have known, such as the late E. A. Riehl and Benjamin Buckman, both of Illinois, who were plunging ahead in their eighties as though they were in their forties.

Mr. Riehl began nut-tree pioneering on some Mississippi bluffs near Alton, Ill., at the age of sixty-three and actually made money out of nuts. He was really just getting started when he died at the age of eighty-seven. I knew him for eleven years.

It was a great pleasure to associate with such a youthful and enthusiastic spirit. He was one of the youngest old men I ever knew, still living in the future, not in retrospect as is so common with old age.

Someday, when we get hungry enough, those golf courses that have been proliferating like weeds will give way to something that can actually feed us. It’s inevitable. And I wouldn't mind being around to pick pawpaws and persimmons from what used to be the 18th green.

This video is part 1 of an animated version of Jean Giono's The Man Who Planted Trees.

And the next video is a short documentary on Trees for the Future, an organization that has planted more than 50 million trees around the world. Founder Dave Deppner explains the "forest garden" concept and the many other successes of this amazing effort.


Christopher C. NC said...

A magnificent post. I hope you don't mind me sending some readers your way.

Frances said...

I came via Christopher's blog, and can only echo his sentiments.

Frances at Fairegarden

Anonymous said...

I'm one of the readers Christopher sent and I agree wholeheartedly with his observation about your post! We recently had a controversy in our area about a large tree which was cut down because a teenager had died when his car hit it, and the mother couldn't bear to see it (it was on public property). The county executive, to show his sympathy, had the tree cut down, leading to general tumult.
I don't know when modern people are going to stop regarding trees as an enemy. I am lucky enough to have 25 mature oaks, sweetgums, black gums, liriodendrons and a persimmon on my property, and the squirrels and I are carefully cultivating more.


Siria said...

I also came via Christopher C.'s post on OutsideClyde. What a wonderful post! I look forward to coming back and enjoying more of your blog. Thank you!