During my time at CLiF, Duncan McDougall lent me a short story called The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono. I developed the habit of reading to my sister before bed this summer and upon exhausting her extensive Junie B. Jones collection I convinced her to let me read Giono’s story. It only took us a few nights to work through it, but each of those nights, after my sister was a-slumber, I returned to my own room and couldn’t help reflecting on what I had read.
To make a short story even shorter, The Man Who Planted Trees is told from the perspective of a man who visits a desolate valley during a solo hiking trip in Provence, France. There, he spends time with a solitary, quiet shepherd named Elzeard Bouffier who spends his life planting one hundred acorns in the valley every day. The narrator leaves and returns to the valley, depressed after fighting in the First World War, to find it vibrant and rebuilding as a result of the growing trees. Over the next four decades, the narrator records the continued growth of human and natural life in the valley until it is an idyllic community. Bouffier dies peacefully, without anyone knowing that they owe their happiness to him and his tree-planting.
The book ends, “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.”
“The Man Who Planted Trees,” Michael McCurdy, 1985, Wood engraving
I applied for the CLiF Summer Intern position, basically, because I am quote-unquote Passionate About Reading. I had a simplistic aim: to “spread the joy of books among younger people in my community.” I probably had visions of myself, a more glamorous acorn sower, tossing literaseeds (I’m copyrighting that) left and right, causing monumental and immediate evolution and improvement in the Twin States. I may have even expected the sort of outward glory that Bouffier never received. In other words, I was focused on my humanity being admirable, without spending enough time thinking about the four decades part.
Working with CLiF helped me to slow down. It turns out that non-profit work, even at a place like CLiF, isn’t always sexy. There’s a lot of database entry, book packing, and window cleaning – the menial stuff – to be done. Even when you get the chance to attend fun CLiF events every few weeks, the other behind-the-scenes work feels trying. I had to begin learning to be patient in navigating all of the complicated tasks required to move a cause forward, no matter how simple the cause. As a 20 year old, to hear the words “five-year strategic plan” without shuddering requires not only an ability to let go of the charm of more revolutionary means, but also a love for and dedication to the less sexy tasks (LSTs) themselves. If you are patient enough to see them contribute to change of any degree, then you start to see and feel in the LSTs the same pride and beauty you might find when looking back at, say, twenty years of community-altering work. And to see that, and to feel that… it’s cool.
The first paragraph of The Man Who Planted Trees is this:
“For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years. If this performance is devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is unparalleled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and that, in addition, it has left its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.”
I’m not at that point of performance yet. But I’m no longer an acorn either, and that’s entirely thanks to the example and guidance of five human characters who, even just during one summer, revealed to me truly exceptional qualities. CLiF is a team of true Elzeard Bouffiers, a task force of admirable humans, and I feel so lucky that I got to work with each and all of them. I know now what to aspire to in whatever sort of service I do in the future. CLiF left a visible mark on me. And in the end, I do hope that I left a visible mark on CLiF as well.
John Davis served as CLiF’s Summer Intern from June – August 2017. John helped make more than 140 Summer Readers events all over Vermont and Hampshire run smoothly (there he is up top at a Summer Readers event with Burlington’s SOAR Program at Flynn Elementary School), keep our supporters up-to-date on what CLiF is up to on social media, and ably handled everything we threw at him with a smile! When not reading or learning about how small non-profits run, John is a junior at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. He truly did leave “a visible mark” here and we wish him the best of luck in all his future endeavors!