I became acquainted with the work of Jean Giono (1895-1970) and Wendell Berry at the same time in my life. In the very early 1980s, I was given a tuition waiver to attend a writing conference in Squaw Valley, California, where I had the good fortune to discover Jack Shoemaker’s North Point Press, a San Francisco publishing house pursuing the Quixotic quest of bringing neglected fine literature back into print. Their catalog had two listings that interested me, Berry’s Recollected Essays 1965-1980 and Joy of Man’s Desiring, an intriguing title by a French author who, like Wendell Berry, I’d never known about.
It was a good time for me to discover both of these writers. I was an aspiring writer without a single bylined work to my credit back then. The hard times of the early Reagan years were devastating my valley and I was living in rural poverty like the rest of my laid-off friends and our families were, drawing unemployment, food stamps, and eating USDA surplus cheese while doing my best to draw subsistence from my own land and the world around me.
Both writers have remained important to me, though in different aspects of my life and my writing. Wendell Berry’s essays showed me that what I was seeing—the degradation of both my community and our environment—was something that we shared with others, a common situation for country-living folk around the nation and the world. His observation in the penultimate essay of Recollected Essays, The Body and the Earth, that “The modern urban-industrial society is based on a series of radical disconnections between body and soul, husband and wife, marriage and community, community and the earth. At each of these points of disconnection the collaboration of corporation, government and expert sets up a profit-making enterprise that results in the further dismemberment and impoverishment of Creation,” has informed my politics ever since the day I first read those words. By reading Berry, I became convinced that the way we live here in Southern Oregon and this place we live in are worth defending.
Reading Jean Giono’s novels convinced me that the place where I live and the life around me were worthy of providing the setting for high-grade literature. In Giono’s novels much the same deep appreciation for country life as in John Steinbeck’s work pervades the writing, not politically so like in Mr. Berry’s essays, but instead, there is an underlying, deeply compassionate and trenchant understanding of the beauty of our country lives expressed in language so rich that I find myself slowly and moving my lips as I savor the writing. This, for example, from Blue Boy (Jean le Bleu, 1932) his semi-autobiographical coming of age novel:
Once I saw a snake at very close range. I have never been afraid of snakes. I love them as I love weasels, martens, partridges, hares, little rabbits, everything that does not have the association of death or the hypocrisy of love. Snakes are wonderful, peaceful, and sensual creatures, born in the very heart of the earth, in the place where the essence of granite, basalt and porphyry must lie; they are indeed of an extraordinary beauty and grace.
Jean Giono was born and raised in Manosque, a small market town in Provence, in 1895. The characters in his novels are most often French peasants, afflicted by the same troubles and blessed with the same joys that we here in our mountains live with. In that first of his novels that I read, Joy of Man’s Desiring (Que ma Joie Demeure, 1935), Jourdan, a troubled middle-aged farmer, unable to sleep, plows his field at night beneath a bright starry sky that is “vibrating like sheet metal” and worries about his neighbors living there in their remote plateau who are suffering from something he likens to leprosy, a sort of mass hollow-eyed depression brought on by their harsh lives and their isolation.
As a young man, Giono enlisted in the French army during World War I, an experience that left him a life-long pacifist. After the war, he lived in Paris during the “Lost Generation” days of the 1920s before returning to his small hometown in the south. In 1937 he wrote to a friend, explaining his decision to come back to his hometown, “At this time when Paris flourishes—and that is nothing to be proud of—there are people who know nothing of the horrible mediocrity into which civilization, philosophers, public speakers and gossips have plunged the human race.”
He was, he said, writing instead about “Men who are healthy, clean and strong. They live lives of adventure. They alone know the world’s joy and sorrow. And this is as it should be. The others deserve neither the joy nor the sorrow. They know nothing of what they are losing.”
Three of Giono’s six North Point novels are purely adventurous. The Song of the World (Le Chant du Monde, 1934) brings Antonio The Golden Mouthed a quest to save the red-haired son of his friend, Sailor, from the murderous henchmen of a wealthy landowner in a distant mountain region up river. Here, as elsewhere throughout Jean Giono’s novels, nature itself is a major character as much as the humans themselves.
Far away in the dales of the hills, the birds could not sleep. They came and listened to the river. They flew over it silently, almost like fleeting snow. As soon as they had scented the strange smell of the moss on the other bank, they flashed back, flapping their wings desperately. They swooped down on the ash trees all together, like a net thrown into the water. That autumn, from the very outset, smelt of old moss.
The other two adventures are The Horseman on the Roof (Le Hussard Sur Le Toit, 1951) and its sequel, The Straw Man (Le Bonhuer fou, 1957). The first portrays the aristocratic hero’s dangerous journey home through early nineteenth century Provence to Italy’s Piedmont country while cholera ravages the region. The sequel finds the same dashing young nobleman, Angelo Pardi, at war in Italy against an Austrian occupational army. The Horseman on the Roof was given a feature film treatment in 1995 and is available for streaming on Youtube with English subtitles.
As in Joy of Man’s Desiring, renewal and resurrection are frequent themes in his novels. In one of his early works, Harvest (Regain, 1930) a small mountain village, down to its last inhabitant, is brought back to life by Panturle Bridaine, a hard-working bachelor peasant whose “shirt hangs in shreds like bark.” He marries and, refusing to give up his home, plants wheat in the abandoned fields, sowing, reaping, threshing, and winnowing the grain by hand, bringing a small but exceptionally fine harvest to market. His success inspires another family to settle in the old village and then others.
Giono’s best-known work, nowadays (though he was considered a major internationally acclaimed writer in his day) is not a novel but a short story, The Man Who Planted Trees, which appeared in Vogue in 1954. Made into a thirty-minute animated short film in 1987 by Canadian filmmaker Frédéric Back, it has been widely distributed in print as well and has become, along with Wendell Berry’s writings, a mainstay among college environmental studies reading lists.
Here, a solitary man, an aging shepherd named Elzéard Bouffier, “…one of God’s athletes,” brings healing to a barren, overgrazed highland by bending down to plant acorns one at a time for thirty years and leaving an extensive oak forest as his legacy. His decades-long steady work builds soil, restores stream flows, and leads to a revival of an abandoned region.
Hope, then, had returned. Ruins had been cleared away, dilapidated walls torn down and five houses restored. Now there were twenty-eight inhabitants, four of them young married couples. The new houses, freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens where vegetables and flowers grew in orderly confusion, cabbages and roses, leeks and snapdragons, celery and anemones. It was now a village where one would like to live.
Robert Leo Heilman’s first byline appeared over a review of Jean Giono’s novels published in The Grapevine Gazette, Roseburg, Oregon in 1983. He is the award-winning author of Overstory: Zero, Real Life in Timber Country, and two other books.