Moss Musings

Welcome!

If you’re new to our newsletter, I’d like to extend a warm welcome. If you’ve been with us from the start, welcome back. We’re so glad you’re enjoying these musings.—David Moss


Reunion and Realization

It was begun about one hundred fifty years ago. I glimpsed it about sixty-five years ago but never forgot it. And now, suddenly, it was in my hands.

Reunion and Realization photoI remember as a young child being at a boring family event, when some relative pulled out a small handwritten book. At that point I didn’t know what it was, where it came from, or who had written it, though I was told it had been in the family a long time. Yet mysteriously, some very deep, powerful memory of that few-seconds glimpse stayed with me and haunted me ever since.

Later I learned whose book it had been. I’m a fifth-generation Ohioan. My great-great grandparents, Israel Marcus Schlesinger and Eva Lobenberg Schlesinger, came to Columbus from small towns in southern Germany, probably in the 1850s, and were among the founders of that now-thriving Jewish community.  I.M. Schlesinger (as he was known) was the secretary of the community. He was also the Mohel and it was his ledger recording the circumcisions he had performed that I had glimpsed. I always wondered what had happened to it.

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At some point I heard a family rumor that the book had ended up in the archives of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. I searched their extensive database but came up with nothing. I was recently in touch with the director of the library, Laurel Wolfson, since they are part of my Minyan—my ongoing subscription plan of limited edition, signed works that come out every few months. I asked her if she would be willing to see if she could turn up anything related to the Mohel book and amazingly she did.  Laurel sent me a twenty-page pdf of a hand-written copy of all the names, dates, and places of all the circumcisions recorded in the book.  It was prefaced by a letter from Marion Camin in which she stated that the original book had been in her possession for 45 years and upon her death it would go to her son, Alan. I was excited and jumped on the internet to see what I could turn up. I was able to track down a Dr. Alan Camin in Chicago, but unfortunately he had just died this past December. This is where the detective work got challenging and it took me quite a while to turn up anyone who might have known him—a friend or a relative.

Eventually I was able to track down a woman I believed had to be his daughter.  I gingerly left a message on what I thought might be her work phone number. She suspiciously responded but I was able to provide enough information to satisfy her. She, my wife, my sister, and I met in downtown Chicago in August. We were able to piece together exactly the relationship and we were all delighted.

She brought the original book with her to the meeting. The moment I opened it, I had a sudden, extremely powerful revelation. All these years I had thought I was searching for this book because of familial connections, genealogy, history, and a family-related artistic project I’m slowly plodding away at. But when I opened the book and saw the remarkable hand calligraphy of my direct ancestor, I had no doubt that my seeing that book for a few seconds as a child was somehow connected to my unexplainable, powerful infatuation with the Hebrew letters, and thus my whole artistic career.

In his book, The Soul’s Code, James Hillman suggests that who we are meant to become is hidden deeply within us from birth. He calls it his “acorn theory.” We’re each an acorn from our very beginning, just waiting to become unique oaks. He says that when we experience something that touches that inner core of our destiny, we somehow recognize it and it resonates powerfully. I can think of no better example of this than that fleeting childhood glance that augured who I was to become.


This month I have a Chanukah treat for you: An article by a guest blogger, Saskia Swenson Moss, who, aside from being a talented writer, happens to be my wonderful daughter-in-law.

Don’t let the light go out: Growing up Jewish in northern Vermont

What makes Jewish identity stick?

In Johnson, the small Vermont town that I grew up in, there were hardly any Jews. None of our neighbors was Jewish. There was no synagogue, no Jewish community center, no Jewish summer camp. Even Chabad had not made it to where we lived, off a dirt road surrounded by smooth, blue mountains and up the hill from a decrepit farm where cold cows shivered out the winters up to their ankles in manure.

My Dad’s grandparents had been Swedish Lutherans. He had met my mom at Oberlin. When they got engaged, my mother’s grandmother quizzed him on whether he might be willing to change religions. Knowing she was strong in Chicago’s Reform movement, my dad joked with her. “Gram-Gram,” he said, “the day that you keep kosher is the day I’ll convert.” Everyone had a good laugh and the question of my Dad’s religious preference was dropped.

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And so I grew up making bows and shooting arrows in the summer and carving igloos out of snow piled high by the plow in winter. No Talmuds lined our shelves, we ate pork, and sometimes shrimp and ham. No one in my house knew what the Mishnah was. But we were Jewish.

Why? What made it so clear that we were unequivocally members of the tribe? Asking myself that now, living a Modern Orthodox life in Jerusalem, I close my eyes and see the following:

Snow is falling. It’s black outside. No sign of any other human beings. And it is cold. The kind of cold that makes you feel deeply lonely looking up at the night sky and seeing the tiny pricks of thin stars. They may be suns, but the light is so far away that you feel completely inconsequential. To keep warm, you shrink your face deeper into your coat and puff out your warm breath. If you stay out too long, your cheeks and the tips of your fingers will go numb.

As these dark nights got longer, my mom, with a religious regularity that never appeared any other time, would begin to get ready for Hanukkah. A day or two before the holiday began, our three menorahs would appear. My sister’s and mine were delicate and tiny, inlaid with colored tile, bought for us as toddlers. They took birthday candles and burned out within a minute. My parent’s menorah was a simple gold, large enough to hold the beautiful array of blood red, off-white, gold and blue Hanukkah candles.

I see us standing in our small yellow kitchen. My mom is orchestrating the turning off of lights. Hushing everyone into solemn silence she lights the main menorah and then sings, “Baruch ata Adonai, Elohenu Melech Ha’olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu, lehadlik ner, shel Han-u-kkah! My sister and I light ours and repeat the blessing.

As the flames shine against the frosty kitchen window, we go to open presents. Years later, at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, I learned about the mitzvah of putting your menorah where people can see it. If anyone had been driving up the road and looked down at our house during Hanukkah, they would have noticed the twinkle of candles. How did my mom know to put them there?

My dad believed in a present for each night. Seven small presents and then, on the last night, the grand finale. The bike, the tape recorder, whatever the one thing you had really wanted, that was the present that appeared on that final night so that Hanukkah, sometimes just a day or two shy of Christmas, could go out with a bang.

Long after I had grown up and moved away, my dad continued sending me packages with eight small gifts wrapped carefully to keep the tradition of a present a night alive.

In a few weeks, it will be Hanukkah time again and I think back to my mom. How on her own she crafted Jewish experiences that gave us joy. And, as I watch my children speak Hebrew, daven and weave Jewish stories into their own lives, I think, “It’s thanks to you, Mom, that the light did not go out.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saskia Swenson Moss works for the Harold Grinspoon Foundation on PJ Our Way, a program that is changing the paradigm of Jewish education and engagement for American tweens. Saskia lives in the never boring city of Jerusalem with her husband, Yoni and her three children, Akiva, Yovel and Heleni.

This article was first printed in The Times of Israel


It’s the Magic


People often ask what led me from doing art to also teaching Jewish values through art. It’s the magic.
The magic that happens in the moment. You can see it in this photo of Haredi kids listening with rapt
attention as I show them the art in my Haggadah and talk about its meaning. When I realized that reaction is constant regardless of the audience, I knew I had to share it. And that led me to my work in education.

“When one teaches, two learn”
Robert Heinlein (American science-fiction writer,1907-1988)
(thanks to Avraham Roos for this quote?)

MiKol Milamdai Hiskalti (from all who have taught me, I have learned)
Mishlei (Book of Proverbs)

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Harnessing the magic of the arts for Jewish inspiration, whether for a few minutes, as in the photo,
or for a week-long artist-in-residency, is my guiding principle. The delight, interest, and excitement
appears across all denominational Jewish lines. These Haredi boys have the same look of intensity as
do members of the secular kibbutzim and reform synagogues I speak to. It’s rare that the same thing sparks appreciation across the spectrum in that way.

To learn more about the educational work we do at Kol HaOt, please visit KolHaot.com. I do many artist-in-residencies across the US and right here in Jerusalem, so please sign up for our mailing list to be
alerted to upcoming gatherings in your area.


IT’S A MIRACLE

Virtually every year for decades now, I work with a small group of campers at Camp Ramah in Ojai on an art project. Rosalyn helps me with these intense workshops and ourprocedure is unique, for we have absolutely no idea what the project will be, coming in.

Our first stage is to simply listen carefully to the campers and find out what’s on their mind—what’s an important issue at camp or in their lives that they want to address by making a permanent artwork for camp. We then take these young people through the entire process of how real
artistic creation happens as we define our problem and apply principles to come up with a fresh, unique solution. Then we design, scrounge materials, build, and present the project to the whole camp.

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Last year at Ramah, the issue selected was how to increase communications and friendships between different age groups at camp who don’t normally interact. Our solution was to create a beautiful
meeting space under a large tree just outside of camp. We spun a colorful, physical “web of interaction,” created discussion prompts hanging from the tree, and made a large sign with a quote in Hebrew from Psalms.

Then, in October, terrible wildfires raced through the area, leaving destruction in their wake. Rabbi Joe Menashe, camp director, wrote of driving up with his colleagues to assess the damage to the camp and thank the firefighters for their heroic work. He was profoundly grateful to find no structural damage, and wrote that “The firefighters, who came from all over California and Oregon to bravely serve our community, shared honestly that they did not expect to be able to save the entire camp. They were especially moved after hearing of our grateful multigenerational community that spans the globe and considers this place a home for our kehillah kedosha (holy community).”

Rabbi Joe was astonished to see just where the fires had stopped. Almost miraculously, it was at the exact spot of our art installation that the raging wildfire’s consuming blaze stopped, just yards from the camp. The sign with the quote from Psalms reads, “This is the gate of the Lord. Let the righteous enter therein.” “Little did our community know,” wrote Rabbi Joe, “that a few short months later, courageous and righteous men, none of whom were injured in their efforts to save camp, passed under that very sign.”


4/1/18—Counting years and counting days….

I guess it was an exciting time for my parents when they moved from our tiny house in the old neighborhood of Dayton View to their suburban dream house. It was 1958 and my dad got to pour his overflowing creativity into this new house. Workshops upstairs and downstairs; radiant heating in the floors; low-voltage wiring so he could start my mom’s coffee in the kitchen from their bed at the other end of the house.

But as a shy, awkward twelve-year-old, all I knew was that I was leaving everything familiar and venturing into a frightening unknown.

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Especially a new school where I knew no one. However, the transition was made tolerable by a new-found friend, Paul. And what a precious, life-enhancing sixty-year friendship this has been. We shared our discovery of the world. We shared our interests, our hopes, and our dreams.  In our brand-new high school we were an inseparable pair. We ran the photography lab together. We made explosives in the chemistry lab together. We copied and got caught copying the master keys to the school. We released and saved the frogs from dissection in biology. Paul and David. And to this day this friendship remains a precious part of our lives.

Paul is one of the most knowledgeable and competent people I’ve ever met. He knows everything and forgets nothing. But his talents are as much in his hands as his head. His skills include exquisite wood turning, car and motorcycle mechanics, machining, woodwork, musical instrument making, fine cooking, farming, Belgian beer making, and wine making. He built his own house in Ohio. After he retired from his medical device engineering career, he ran Bet Alpha Editions for me for 10 years. He has been my companion, confidant, advisor, and co-conspirator for six decades.

Paul met his wife, Lee, at Antioch College, where they’re both still involved trying to keep it alive. Lee’s skills are in textiles—weaving, quilting, sewing, embroidery. She’s never without a challenging major project.

When my ongoing series of Minyan artworks came along, she decided to translate some of the more graphic pieces into fabrics. The stunning results are what I’d like to share with you today.

My print, called Aleph is for Ox, is a bold serigraph based on the original ancient Hebrew alphabet. Lee transformed it into a beautiful textile (we use it for a challah cover) by skillfully sewing around each letter and adding quilting. She re-imaged my original set of 22 prints of the Alphabet of the Angel Metatron, as a large, striking quilt which now hangs proudly in our home.

And it’s perhaps symbolic that as I now count the preciousness of each and every year of this sixty-year friendship, Lee transformed the giclee print I made for the counting of the Omer into a gorgeous quilt. Every colored area and shape was precisely cut out, pieced, folded, and sewed in place. The texture, depth, and sheer craft have added so much dimensionality and contour to this work (besides correcting the mistake I made in it!) that it feels like a totally new creation.

Yes, the yearly counting during the 49 days between the second day of Passover and Shavuot gives us a strong awareness and consciousness of the passing of time—perhaps the greatest gift we’re given. Each day we announce it in its context, not only as consecutive days, but its place in its week and for some even noting the unique mystical significance of every day. The message is clear: time is not a characterless, anonymous flow of sameness. No, every day is unique, with its own character, purpose, and destiny. Every moment is bursting with power, potential, and individuality, with presence and presentness. Indeed, every day is a present, a gift presented to us to encounter afresh and fashion anew. As we say in praise of God every morning before the recital of the Shema, “And in His goodness, every day He continually renews the act of Creation itself.”

How grateful I am to have basked in this special sixty- year friendship of caring and sharing and growing together. And how lovely that this Omer period we are about to enter has been so lovingly stitched into a physical embodiment of the preciousness of time, of devotion, and of friendship.


A Touching Reunion

I recently reunited with a dear, old, and intimate friend—my Haggadah. I was artist-in-residence at Bnai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida. It was a wonderful four-day residency, kicked off by my introductory slide talk at an elegant reception at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. I worked with all sectors of this community: pre-school teachers and staff, teens to seniors.

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One of the highlights of the visit came when the Levy family attended one of my sessions and brought the original of my Haggadah with them. They had commissioned the entirely hand illuminated manuscript in 1980. It was wonderful to see them and very moving to again page through the soft parchment pages of their family heirloom that I had devoted three years of my life to creating. It’s probably been 15 years since I last saw it. My reaction each time I see it is the same. I’m always stunned at how unbelievably faithful and accurate the 1987 facsimile edition is.

Memories of the year and a half we spent creating that large format, two-volume edition are also fresh, since in a few days Rosalyn and I are going to have another long-awaited reunion. Next week we’ll be meeting in Verona, Italy with the genius who produced that masterpiece of the art of fine printing, Martino Mardersteig and his wife Gabriella.
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2/1/18—Origins of the Moss Haggadah: It Happened In Verona

Many of you have asked me over the years about the origins of the Moss Haggadah you enjoy using every Pesach. Well, gather round and I’ll tell you a story.

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My original Haggadah was commissioned by Beatrice and Richard Levy from Florida in the early ’80s. It was entirely handmade and executed on parchment. A dream project to work on. Once I delivered the original, I assumed that was the end of it. But there was to be much more.

We’ve been celebrating the 30th year since the first publication of the Facsimile edition. How did that come about? Vivid memories take me back to the moment when Neil and Sharon Norry first saw the photographs I had of the original. We were in their hotel room in Jerusalem. Neil immediately said: “It’s unacceptable that there is only one original of this book sequestered in a safe. It must be reproduced and shared. We’re going to do that.”

My response—remembering all my hand-applied gold leaf, the many papercuts, attached mirrors, micrographic writing, turning cup and more—was that it was impossible to reproduce this work faithfully. But Neil was someone who wouldn’t accept the word impossible. He responded, “Somewhere you will find someone who can do this to your standards. Start looking.”

So our young family traded apartments with a family from Nice for a summer and I spent the weekdays taking the photographs off to Italy, France, Switzerland, and Austria in search of the perfect printer. I’d return each Friday for Shabbat and spend the weekend with my family. When I stepped into the offices of Mondadori, one of the major art book printers in Verona, they looked at what I had and immediately said: “This is for Mardersteig.”

I knew that name: the finest letterpress printer/hand press book publisher/typographer/book designer of the twentieth century—Giovanni Mardersteig. I said: “Isn’t he dead?” They laughed and said, “Well, yes, but his son Martino continues his work.”

They scrawled a Verona address on a sheet of paper and I walked down the hill, following my street map, to the Via Marsala.  I arrived at a vast 17th or 18th-century villa, passed through the gardens, and knocked on the door. I didn’t realize I had arrived at the Mardersteig home until Mrs. Mardersteig greeted me. I tried my best to explain what I was looking for. She spoke virtually no English and my Italian was almost nonexistent. Somehow she conveyed that I should walk down the street a couple of doors to the workshop. There I was greeted warmly by Martino, whose English was fortunately perfect. He looked at the photographs of the pages I had brought. He said simply: “I can do this.” I looked at examples of the books he had produced for the finest art publishers throughout the world and responded: “You can do this.”  He offered to make a sample to back up his statement. He perfectly reproduced the large-format “Search for Leaven,” a challenging page filled with gold that required perfect registration.

Neil Norry had hoped for someplace closer to home than Verona, Italy. He lived in Rochester, New York, perhaps the graphic arts capital of the United States, and felt certain the project could be done there. Neil convened a meeting with the top experts from Kodak, Xerox, and the finest local experts in the graphic arts. I arrived at the meeting and pulled out my Mardersteig sample, printed in about thirteen colors on a single color press with rich hot stamped gold leaf. When I passed it around the table, the looks on all faces were of astonishment. All immediately agreed that nothing with that level of perfection could be done in America and told us clearly that if we could get that kind of printing we should grab it.

The next powwow was in Verona, to define and negotiate the project. I carefully explained all the difficulties in producing a perfect facsimile of this complicated handmade book, all the special techniques that would be required. Martino patiently took notes and was unflustered. He did seem somewhat surprised when Neil said he’d want all 550 exemplars bound in full gold-stamped calf leather. Usually bindings were done in batches as books sold. I imagined Martino visualizing 550 poor calves running for their lives all over Italy. The facsimile was carefully defined down to all its details. An acceptable price was agreed on.

I then hesitatingly added one more thing that felt essential to me. “This book is really not just about the art. For me, each page is a story. Each page is its own little world built up by my years of research, my seeking the perfect creative expression of a fresh idea into a design, and the dedicated crafting of that design into the final page. The owner of this book must be able to know that story to fully enter the world of this Haggadah. I propose I write an article for each page of the book about exactly what the art is conveying. There should be a second volume of my notes, as large as the facsimile itself, printed both in English and Hebrew, with a slipcase to contain the two volumes.” Martino made some more notes. He asked to be excused while he consulted with his craftspeople. He came back to the room and said:

“This second text volume can, of course, be printed with our fine offset facilities. But I’m thinking that if I told you what it would cost to produce this volume by letterpress printing (the finest method of text printing in which the inked text is actually impressed into the paper by raised metal type) you would balk. So this will be my gift to this project.”

Thus Bet Alpha Editions was founded and we got to work. It took a year and a half to complete the printing and binding. I was constantly going back and forth between Jerusalem and Verona to supervise the work. The Norrys, Mardersteigs, and Mosses became life-long friends.

The paper-cut pages had to be printed in Verona, sent to Santa Rosa (the only place doing high-quality laser cutting at the time), and sent back to Italy for binding.  The 550 calves were rounded up. The eighteen little mirrors, the leather seal, the turning cup (engineered by my friend Paul Feinstein) were added by hand to each book. The book was finished. Martino flew in for the warm and beautiful opening exhibit initiated by Erica and Luddy Jesselson at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York. We had somehow managed to produce a virtually perfect replica of the original. I was told that the former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstein, called it the “tour de force of printing of the twentieth century.” It’s entered the collections of the rare book rooms of The New York Public Library, The Getty Museum, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the British Library, and the Canadian National Library. President Reagan presented a copy as his gift of State to Israeli president Chaim Herzog. But most importantly, it and the two other versions that followed, the Moss Haggadah trade edition and the Moss Haggadah deluxe edition, have become part of the Seder for hundreds of families annually, celebrating  humanity’s most ancient continually performed ritual and encouraging new generations of children to look, to admire, to wonder, to ask and be answered. I’m very blessed.


12/1/17—Behind the Scenes Glimpses

A wonderfully meaningful Ketubah for my granddaughter, Hallel


Almost 40 years ago, I started the contemporary revival of the old, lost tradition of creating custom-designed Ketubot of beauty and meaning for individual couples. I’ve now even done a few third-generation Ketubot—yes, Ketubot for the grandchildren of my earliest customers. Oh, did someone ask what a Ketubah is? It’s a Jewish marriage contract. One of my personally most significant Ketubot was my wife Rosalyn’s. I was also privileged to create Ketubot for all four of our children.

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And now I’ve just had the wonderful honor of writing and designing a Ketubah for our granddaughter, Hallel. Three generations. I can hardly believe it. I read it at their remarkable wedding and a number of guests commented that for the first time they understood the text. This was simply because I could phrase it perfectly since it’s probably the only text I know by heart!

See Love Letters, a collection of custom Ketubot I’ve designed over the years and the story behind each one.


My Doors Are Open

Next time you’re in Jerusalem, please visit my studio in Chutzot HaYotzer, the artists’ lane behind the King David Hotel.

Personal Website—www.davidmoss.com
Publisher’s website—www.bet-alpha-editions.com
Shtender website—www.bezalel-editions.net
Kol Haot website—www.kolhaot.com
A Little Video—http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eq-uHWxjXU


The Man Who Planted Trees

By Jean Giono

Translation from French by Peter Doyle
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 long hike, through hills absolutely unknown to tourists, in that very old region where the Alps penetrate into Provence.

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This region is bounded to the south-east and south by the middle course of the Durance, between Sisteron and Mirabeau; to the north by the upper course of the Drôme, from its source down to Die; to the west by the plains of Comtat Venaissin and the outskirts of Mont Ventoux. It includes all the northern part of the Département of Basses-Alpes, the south of Drôme and a little enclave of Vaucluse.

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. Even though they were in ruins, these houses all huddled together and looking like an old wasps’ nest made me think that there must at one time have been a spring or a well there. There was indeed a spring, but it was dry. The five or six roofless houses, ravaged by sun and wind, and the small chapel with its tumble-down belfry, were arrayed like the houses and chapels of living villages, but all life had disappeared.

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. Thirty lambs or so were resting near him on the scorching ground.

He gave me a drink from his gourd and a little later he led me to his shepherd’s cottage, tucked down in an undulation of the plateau. He drew his water – excellent – from a natural hole, very deep, above which he had installed a rudimentary windlass.

This man spoke little. This is common among those who live alone, but he seemed sure of himself, and confident in this assurance, which seemed remarkable in this land shorn of everything. He lived not in a cabin but in a real house of stone, from the looks of which it was clear that his own labor had restored the ruins he had found on his arrival. His roof was solid and water-tight. The wind struck against the roof tiles with the sound of the sea crashing on the beach.

His household was in order, his dishes washed, his floor swept, his rifle greased; his soup boiled over the fire; I noticed then that he was also freshly shaven, that all his buttons were solidly sewn, and that his clothes were mended with such care as to make the patches invisible.

He shared his soup with me, and when afterwards I offered him my tobacco pouch, he told me that he didn’t smoke. His dog, as silent as he, was friendly without being fawning.

It had been agreed immediately that I would pass the night there, the closest village being still more than a day and a half farther on. Furthermore, I understood perfectly well the character of the rare villages of that region. There are four or five of them dispersed far from one another on the flanks of the hills, in groves of white oaks at the very ends of roads passable by carriage. They are inhabited by woodcutters who make charcoal. They are places where the living is poor. The families, pressed together in close quarters by a climate that is exceedingly harsh, in summer as well as in winter, struggle ever more selfishly against each other. Irrational contention grows beyond all bounds, fueled by a continuous struggle to escape from that place. The men carry their charcoal to the cities in their trucks, and then return. The most solid qualities crack under this perpetual Scottish shower. The women stir up bitterness. There is competition over everything, from the sale of charcoal to the benches at church. The virtues fight amongst themselves, the vices fight amongst themselves, and there is a ceaseless general combat between the vices and the virtues. On top of all that, the equally ceaseless wind irritates the nerves. There are epidemics of suicides and numerous cases of insanity, almost always murderous.

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.

I noted that he carried as a sort of walking stick an iron rod as thick as his thumb and about one and a half meters long. I set off like someone out for a stroll, following a route parallel to his. His sheep pasture lay at the bottom of a small valley. He left his flock in the charge of his dog and climbed up towards the spot where I was standing. I was afraid that he was coming to reproach me for my indiscretion, but not at all : It was his own route and he invited me to come along with him if I had nothing better to do. He continued on another two hundred meters up the hill.

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.

Leading as I did at the time a solitary life, despite my youth, I knew how to treat the souls of solitary people with delicacy. Still, I made a mistake. It was precisely my youth that forced me to imagine the future in my own terms, including a certain search for happiness. I told him that in thirty years these ten thousand trees would be magnificent. He replied very simply that, if God gave him life, in thirty years he would have planted so many other trees that these ten thousand would be like a drop of water in the ocean.

He had also begun to study the propagation of beeches. and he had near his house a nursery filled with seedlings grown from beechnuts. His little wards, which he had protected from his sheep by a screen fence, were growing beautifully. He was also considering birches for the valley bottoms where, he told me, moisture lay slumbering just a few meters beneath the surface of the soil.

We parted the next day.

The next year the war of 14 came, in which I was engaged for five years. An infantryman could hardly think about trees. To tell the truth, the whole business hadn’t made a very deep impression on me; I took it to be a hobby, like a stamp collection, and forgot about it.

With the war behind me, I found myself with a small demobilization bonus and a great desire to breathe a little pure air. Without any preconceived notion beyond that, I struck out again along the trail through that deserted country.

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.”

I had seen too many people die during those five years not to be able to imagine easily the death of Elzéard Bouffier, especially since when a man is twenty he thinks of a man of fifty as an old codger for whom nothing remains but to die. He was not dead. In fact, he was very spry. He had changed his job. He only had four sheep now, but to make up for this he had about a hundred beehives. He had gotten rid of the sheep because they threatened his crop of trees. 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 the beeches that 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.

In 1933 he received the visit of an astonished forest ranger. This functionary ordered him to cease building fires outdoors, for fear of endangering this natural forest. It was the first time, this naive man told him, that a forest had been observed to grow up entirely on its own. At the time of this incident, he was thinking of planting beeches at a spot twelve kilometers from his house. To avoid the coming and going—because at the time he was seventy-five years old—he planned to build a cabin of stone out where he was doing his planting. This he did the next year.

In 1935, a veritable administrative delegation went to examine this natural forest. There was an important personage from Waters and Forests, a deputy, and some technicians. Many useless words were spoken. It was decided to do something, but luckily nothing was done, except for one truly useful thing: placing the forest under the protection of the State and forbidding anyone from coming there to make charcoal. For it was impossible not to be taken with the beauty of these young trees in full health. And the forest exercised its seductive powers even on the deputy himself.

I had a friend among the chief foresters who were with the delegation. I explained the mystery to him. One day the next week, we went off together to look for Elzéard Bouffier, We found him hard at work, twenty kilometers away from the place where the inspection had taken place.

This chief forester was not my friend for nothing. He understood the value of things. He knew how to remain silent. I offered up some eggs I had brought with me as a gift. We split our snack three ways, and then passed several hours in mute contemplation of the landscape.

The hillside whence we had come was covered with trees six or seven meters high. I remembered the look of the place in 1913: a desert…the peaceful and steady labor, the vibrant highland air, his frugality, and above all, the serenity of his soul had given the old man a kind of solemn good health. He was an athlete of God. I asked myself how many hectares he had yet to cover with trees.
Before leaving, my friend made a simple suggestion concerning certain species of trees to which the terrain seemed to be particularly well suited. He was not insistent. “For the very good reason,” he told me afterwards, “that this fellow knows a lot more about this sort of thing than I do.” After another hour of walking, this thought having travelled along with him, he added : “He knows a lot more about this sort of thing than anybody—and he has found a jolly good way of being happy!”

It was thanks to the efforts of this chief forester that the forest was protected, and with it, the happiness of this man. He designated three forest rangers for their protection, and terrorized them to such an extent that they remained indifferent to any jugs of wine that the woodcutters might offer as bribes.

The forest did not run any grave risks except during the war of 1939. Then automobiles were being run on wood alcohol, and there was never enough wood. They began to cut some of the stands of the oaks of 1910, but the trees stood so far from any useful road that the enterprise turned out to be bad from a financial point of view, and was soon abandoned. The shepherd never knew anything about it. He was thirty kilometers away, peacefully continuing his task, as untroubled by the war of 39 as he had been of the war of 14.

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.

Elzéard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the hospice in Banon.