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Home Sufism Teaching stories Planting Hope

Planting Hope

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About 40 years ago, I was taking a long trip on foot over mountain heights, an ancient region where the Alps thrust down into Provence. This was an area that was quite unknown to tourists since it was barren and colourless land, and nothing grew there except wild lavender. I was crossing the area at its widest point, and after three days of walking, found myself in the midst of unparalleled desolation.

I had run out of water the day before, and had to find some urgently, so I camped near the vestiges of an abandoned village. These clustered houses, now in ruins like an old wasps nest, suggested that there must be a spring or a well nearby. There was indeed a spring, but it was dry. It seemed that all life had vanished. After about 5 hours of searching, I still had not found water, and nothing to give me hope of finding any. All about me was the same dryness, the same coarse grasses. Then I thought I glimpsed in the distance a small black silhouette, upright, and took it for the trunk of a solitary tree. In any case, I started towards it. It turned out to be a shepherd, with 30 sheep lying around him on the baking earth. He gave me a drink from his water-gourd and a little later, invited me to his cottage in a fold of the plain. He drew his water - excellent water - from a very deep natural well above which he had constructed a primitive winch.

The man spoke little. He lived not in a cabin, but in a real house built of stone that bore plain evidence of how his own efforts had reclaimed the ruin he had found there on his arrival. His roof was strong and sound. The wind on its tiles made the sound of the sea upon the shore. The place was in order, the dishes washed, the floor swept, his rifle oiled, his soup was placed to boil, over the fire. I noticed that he was cleanly shaved, all his buttons were firmly sewed on, that his clothing had been mended with the meticulous care that makes the mending invisible. It was understood from the first that I would spend the night there. The nearest inhabited village was more than a day and a half away. And besides, I was perfectly familiar with the nature of the rare villages in that region. They were inhabited with charcoal burners, and the living was bad. Families, crowded together in a climate that is harsh in both winter and summer, found no escape from the unceasing conflict of personalities. Irrational ambition reached inordinate proportions in the continual desire for escape. The soundest characters broke under the perpetual grind. The women nursed their grievances. There was rivalry in everything, over the price of coal as over a pew in the church, over warring virtues as over warring vices as well as ceaseless combat between virtue and vice.

He shared his soup with me and afterwards, when I offered my tobacco pouch, he told me that he did not smoke. His dog, as silent as himself, was friendly without being servile.

I smoked my pipe and watched him as he fetched a small sack and poured a heap of acorns on the table. He began to inspect them with great concentration, separating the good from the bad. I offered to help him, but he told me that it was his job. I did not insist, seeing the care he devoted to the task. That was the whole of our conversation. When he had set aside a large enough pile of good acorns, he counted them out by tens, meanwhile eliminating the small ones or those which were slightly cracked, for now he examined them more thoroughly. When he had thus selected one hundred perfect acorns, he stopped and we went to bed.

There was peace in being with this man. The next day, I asked if I might rest there for a day. He found it quite natural - or, to be more exact, he gave the impression that nothing could startle him. He opened the sheep pen and led his flock to pasture. Before leaving, he plunged his sack of carefully selected and counted acorns into a pail of water. I noticed that he carried for his stick an iron rod as thick as my thumb and about a yard and half long.


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