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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Jean Giono’s book fits easily into my coat pocket. For a small book, it has enormous importance. Rarely does an author succeed in writing a succinct and lyrical message of salvation to the world.

I am reading the book for the third time in preparation for a book discussion I’ll be leading for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies at Toklat in Ashcroft on March 27. Reading books more than once is rare for me, but this book offsets my sometimes dismal worldview, so I might end up reading it dozens of times as an antidote to my innate misgivings about the future.

I first read “The Man Who Planted Trees” while bicycle touring in Spain 20 years ago. A friend and I were pedaling around the island of Mallorca during the week of Earth Day, so I picked up the pocket edition as a way of honoring that event.

I read the book while sitting on a pebble beach with waves washing the shore while leaning against an olive tree in a hillside orchard lined with ancient stone walls and sipping tea in a cafe in a small village with narrow, cobbled streets. I read eagerly as Giono’s words struck a magical chord.

Elezeard Bouffier, the main character, gains heroic proportions through the most humble act of planting trees, of supplicating himself to the Earth by giving the ultimate gift – life – back to the land.

Here was an act of personal redemption that would not manifest itself for decades, long after his life had ended. Bouffier sowed seeds that would bear fruit far into a future that lived only in his unique and prescient vision.

“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,” Giono writes, “I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable.”

This is the way I would like to feel, though it’s not easy for me to grasp and maintain it. When Giono writes, “in spite of everything,” he conveys for me the steady flow of current events that erodes the admirable part of humanity and makes difficult the optimism he portrays in Bouffier.

In this book, the weight of reality is eased by an uplift of lofty idealism. What emerges is a way of looking at life through the soul-affirming actions of one outstanding human being, acting on his own from deep inner knowing and caring.

Do we accept Giono’s view that mankind is admirable? Or do we mire in defeatism and despair over the “in spite of everything” caveat? There might be no choice at all but rather a kind of determinism from personality and position in life.

The book discussion at Toklat will provide an opportunity to compare perspectives on Giono’s inspired, poetic writing about Bouffier. I’m hoping for diverse views since the rubbing together of opposing ideas generates heat that warms the intellect and liquefies the flow of thoughts.

This is what Robert Maynard Hutchins referred to as “The Great Conversation” and what Goethe meant when he wrote, “Since we are so miraculously met, let us not lead trivial lives.”

Exchanging ideas is the spice of the intellectual life. Finding stimulation rather than threats in any engagement is what a healthy society encourages. It’s a way that we can share and challenge and grow. It’s a way to avoid the enervating dullness of the unchallenged, unexercised mind.

Some would say that a book like Giono’s put before an Aspen audience of ACES subscribers is like preaching to the choir. That might be so, but even the choir needs to sing once in a while, if only to reaffirm and celebrate the harmony of values related to environmental ethics and individual initiative.

March 27 will be the first discussion I have led for the ACES Book Club, and I look forward to a lively exchange at Toklat, which has been hallowed ground for the sharing of ideas about nature for decades. Many seeds of thought have been planted there.

Giono’s book – “The Man Who Planted Trees” – is a wonderful opening for such a spring conversation. To sign up, contact ACES at 970-925-5756.


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