For the Ambient Wonder event at Greenbelt Festival this year we are exploring the overall theme of "Standing in the Long Now" The early church fully expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes and this vision has lived on undying generation after generation standing in perhaps the 'Longest Now' - working towards something they would never live to see fulfilled - "even before the end of this age I shall return..." a moment in time to God, yet centuries to man. We shall be looking at the heritage of example and vision that we have inherited from those who have gone before us: "Standing on the backs of Giants".
My piece will be about looking back to those "unforgettable charcters" of history inorder to look forward to our futures with renewed hope and vigour:
Now as we stand on the brink of the future let us consider the visionary efforts of people that have changed barren landscapes and brought hope, life and freedom to millions. The service of men like Martin luther King Jr. and Willam Wilberforce who planted a vision that inspired radical change they never lived to see fulfilled. Like the great landscape architects who planted miles of saplings to create an inspirational avenue of beeches that could never reveal its potential in their lifetimes. Like Elzéard Bouffier in "The man who planted Trees" by Jean Giono:
"In order for the character of a human being to reveal truly exceptional qualities, we must have the good fortune to observe its action over a long period of years. If this action is devoid of all selfishness, if the idea that directs it is one of unqualified generosity, if it is absolutely certain that it has not sought recompense anywhere, and if moreover it has left visible marks on the world, then we are unquestionably dealing with an unforgettable character."
About forty years ago I went on a hike, through hills absolutely unknown to tourists, in that very old region where the Alps penetrate into Provence. At the time I undertook my long walk through this deserted region, it consisted of barren and monotonous lands, at about 1200 to 1300 meters above sea level. Nothing grew there except wild lavender.
I was crossing this country at its widest part, and after walking for three days, I found myself in the most complete desolation. I was camped next to the skeleton of an abandoned village. I had used the last of my water the day before and I needed to find more...
It was a beautiful June day with plenty of sun, but on these shelterless lands, high up in the sky, the wind whistled with an unendurable brutality. Its growling in the carcasses of the houses was like that of a wild beast disturbed during its meal.
I had to move my camp. After five hours of walking, I still hadn't found water, and nothing gave me hope of finding any. Everywhere there was the same dryness, the same stiff, woody plants. I thought I saw in the distance a small black silhouette. On a chance I headed towards it. It was a shepherd...
(After providing food and shelter) The shepherd, who did not smoke, took out a bag and poured a pile of acorns out onto the table. He began to examine them one after another with a great deal of attention, separating the good ones from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I offered to help him, but he told me it was his own business. Indeed, seeing the care that he devoted to this job, I did not insist. This was our whole conversation. When he had in the good pile a fair number of acorns, he counted them out into packets of ten. In doing this he eliminated some more of the acorns, discarding the smaller ones and those that that showed even the slightest crack, for he examined them very closely. When he had before him one hundred perfect acorns he stopped, and we went to bed.
The company of this man brought me a feeling of peace. I asked him the next morning if I might stay and rest the whole day with him. He found that perfectly natural. Or more exactly, he gave me the impression that nothing could disturb him. This rest was not absolutely necessary to me, but I was intrigued and I wanted to find out more about this man. He let out his flock and took them to the pasture. Before leaving, he soaked in a bucket of water the little sack containing the acorns that he had so carefully chosen and counted...
Having arrived at the place he had been heading for, he begin to pound his iron rod into the ground. This made a hole in which he placed an acorn, whereupon he covered over the hole again. He was planting oak trees. I asked him if the land belonged to him. He answered no. Did he know whose land it was? He did not know. He supposed that it was communal land, or perhaps it belonged to someone who did not care about it. He himself did not care to know who the owners were. In this way he planted his one hundred acorns with great care.
After the noon meal, he began once more to pick over his acorns. I must have put enough insistence into my questions, because he answered them. 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.
It was at this moment that I began to wonder about his age. He was clearly more than fifty. Fifty-five, he told me. His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He had owned a farm in the plains, where he lived most of his life. He had lost his only son, and then his wife. He had retired into this solitude, where he took pleasure in living slowly, with his flock of sheep and his dog. He had concluded that this country was dying for lack of trees. He added that, having nothing more important to do, he had resolved to remedy the situation...
(A war-torn decade later I revisited those deserted lands) The land had not changed. Nonetheless, beyond that dead village I perceived in the distance a sort of gray fog that covered the hills like a carpet. Ever since the day before I had been thinking about the shepherd who planted trees. Ten thousand oaks, I had said to myself, must really take up a lot of space... He told me (as indeed I could see for myself) that the war had not disturbed him at all. He had continued imperturbably with his planting.
The oaks of 1910 were now ten years old and were taller than me and than him. The spectacle was impressive. I was literally speechless and, as he didn't speak himself, we passed the whole day in silence, walking through his forest. It was in three sections, eleven kilometers long overall and, at its widest point, three kilometers wide. When I considered that this had all sprung from the hands and from the soul of this one man - without technical aids - , it struck me that men could be as effective as God in domains other than destruction...
He had followed his idea (and begun planting beeches, that now) reached up to my shoulders and extending as far as the eye could see bore witness to it. The oaks were now good and thick, and had passed the age where they were at the mercy of rodents; as for the designs of Providence, to destroy the work that had been created would henceforth require a cyclone. He showed me admirable stands of birches that dated from five years ago, that is to say from 1915, when I had been fighting at Verdun. He had planted them in the valley bottoms where he had suspected, correctly, that there was water close to the surface. They were as tender as young girls, and very determined.
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. Certain of the sad villages that I spoke of at the beginning of my account had been built on the sites of ancient Gallo-Roman villages, of which there still remained traces; archeologists digging there had found fishhooks in places where in more recent times cisterns were required in order to have a little water.
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?
Beginning in 1920 I never let more than a year go by without paying a visit to Elzéard Bouffier. I never saw him waver or doubt, though God alone can tell when God's own hand is in a thing! I have said nothing of his disappointments, but you can easily imagine that, for such an accomplishment, it was necessary to conquer adversity; that, to assure the victory of such a passion, it was necessary to fight against despair. One year he had planted ten thousand maples. They all died. The next year,he gave up on maples and went back to beeches, which did even better than the oaks.
To get a true idea of this exceptional character, one must not forget that he worked in total solitude; so total that, toward the end of his life, he lost the habit of talking. Or maybe he just didn't see the need for it...
I saw Elzéard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945. He was then eighty-seven years old. I had once more set off along my trail through the wilderness, only to find that now, in spite of the shambles in which the war had left the whole country, there was a motor coach running between the valley of the Durance and the mountain. I set down to this relatively rapid means of transportation the fact that I no longer recognized the landmarks I knew from my earlier visits. It also seemed that the route was taking me through entirely new places. I had to ask the name of a village to be sure that I was indeed passing through that same region, once so ruined and desolate. The coach set me down at Vergons. In 1913, this hamlet of ten or twelve houses had had three inhabitants. They were savages, hating each other, and earning their living by trapping : Physically and morally, they resembled prehistoric men . The nettles devoured the abandoned houses that surrounded them. Their lives were without hope, it was only a matter of waiting for death to come : a situation that hardly predisposes one to virtue.
All that had changed, even to the air itself. In place of the dry, brutal gusts that had greeted me long ago, a gentle breeze whispered to me, bearing sweet odors. A sound like that of running water came from the heights above : It was the sound of the wind in the trees. And most astonishing of all, I heard the sound of real water running into a pool. I saw that they had built a fountain, that it was full of water, and what touched me most, that next to it they had planted a lime-tree that must be at least four years old, already grown thick, an incontestable symbol of resurrection.
Furthermore, Vergons showed the signs of labors for which hope is a requirement : Hope must therefore have returned. They had cleared out the ruins, knocked down the broken walls, and rebuilt five houses. The hamlet now counted twenty-eight inhabitants, including four young families. The new houses, freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens that bore, mixed in with each other but still carefully laid out, vegetables and flowers, cabbages and rosebushes, leeks and gueules-de-loup, celery and anemones. It was now a place where anyone would be glad to live.
From there I continued on foot. The war from which we had just barely emerged had not permitted life to vanish completely, and now Lazarus was out of his tomb. On the lower flanks of the mountain, I saw small fields of barley and rye; in the bottoms of the narrow valleys, meadowlands were just turning green.
It has taken only the eight years that now separate us from that time for the whole country around there to blossom with splendor and ease. On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 there are now well-kept farms, the sign of a happy and comfortable life. The old springs, fed by rain and snow now that are now retained by the forests, have once again begun to flow. The brooks have been channelled. Beside each farm, amid groves of maples, the pools of fountains are bordered by carpets of fresh mint. Little by little, the villages have been rebuilt. Yuppies have come from the plains, where land is expensive, bringing with them youth, movement, and a spirit of adventure. Walking along the roads you will meet men and women in full health, and boys and girls who know how to laugh, and who have regained the taste for the traditional rustic festivals. Counting both the previous inhabitants of the area, now unrecognizable from living in plenty, and the new arrivals, more than ten thousand persons owe their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier.
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. "
By faith Elzéard Bouffier planted a life and hope bringing forest that rejuevenated a whole region; By faith Moses led his people out of slavery to a promised land he was never to see, but never doubted; By Faith William Wilberforce worked tirelessly for the abolition of slavery; By faith Martin Luther King Jr. faced hatred and death to call for freedom. By Faith what will you do....?
We are standing on the brink of our future, shaped and inspired by what has gone before, faced by the challenges of now: "These are the hands...what will you build with them "
By faith what will you do?
Take a cherry - as you hold it feel and see its smooth shiny skin, stippled with crimson. Know that what has gone before in your life is still important - still valuable - but in the past.
Now as you bite into it focus on now - this moment - as its juices bleed into your mouth know this is a point totally in the present - a place of decision - the brink of the future.
As you are left with the hard stone in your mouth or hand, feel its rough ridges with your tounge or fingers and imagine this seed that is about to be planted by you growing into a sapling - this is the future for this wooden seemingly lifeless pip full of the potential for growth - what lies ahead for you is unknown but shapable by your hopes, dreams, plans, prayers and efforts.
Now take a pot and plant your stone -whilst doing so reflect on what Martin Luther King dreamed of and what you inturn hope and plan to have done and be doing when it is 10 years old and 12 feet tall;
when it is 50 years old ladenned with blossom, fruit and glorious autumn colour - who and what will still be affected by the legacy of our lives;
when it is 100 years old in the twenty second century, will the hope we had to make the world a better place have a monument to it still in this trees swaying branches - will your dream have become reality - a promised land?
(During this time of reflection the music will play a speech and images of MLK http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGXeA8tsJ2c)