09 Sep The Best Adventure Book Ever Written: “The Little Prince”
Great adventures make for engaging and can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens-next books; and if you browse the “adventure” shelves of any bookstore, you’re likely to find tales of mountain climbing feats, polar expeditions, diving derring-do or deep wilderness hiking.
Rarely, though, when we want an adventure page-turner do we think of perusing the children’s books section. Yet it is there, I think, that the greatest adventure and conservation book ever written resides. In a little less than 100 pages—including illustrations—French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery penned what I think is the best adventure story of all time: The Little Prince.
One of the top best-selling books ever, The Little Prince, which was published in 1943, has been translated into more than 190 languages and has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Most of us know the story: The narrator, who is an airplane pilot, crashes in the Sahara Desert. He has very little food or water, and his plane is badly damaged. Suddenly, a very serious little boy with blond hair approaches and asks him to draw a picture of a sheep. We come to learn that this little boy with such a regal bearing lives on a small planet that people on Earth know as Asteroid B-612.
The Little Prince typically spends his days at home pulling out the baobab trees that constantly try to split his world into pieces with their roots. He works diligently to save his tiny globe for his one rose, whom he loves very much. After catching his prideful flower in a lie, however, he grows lonely and sets out to explore other worlds.
The Little Prince travels to six other asteroids, each of which is inhabited by a foolish adult. While on the sixth one, the Little Prince is asked by a geographer to describe his home. When the prince mentions his rose, the geographer explains that he does not catalog roses, terming them ephemeral. The prince is shocked and hurt by this revelation. The geographer recommends that the next stop in the Little Prince’s journeys be Earth because of its “good reputation.”
A tale of two plants
But it is not only the stories of imaginative explorations that make The Little Prince a great adventure book. It’s the title character’s reflections on his travels and what he learns along the way. And the biggest illumination, I think, comes to the Little Prince and the book’s readers from the mouth of a fox, that says, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
That alone could be the greatest conservation sentence ever uttered. We humans have domesticated the wild world, putting it to work for us by cutting down forests, draining wetlands and exploding mountains. Since 1600, in the Lower 48 states alone, 90 percent of the virgin forests that once covered America have been cleared away, mostly for timber. It is estimated that 50 percent of the world’s original wetlands have been lost, largely for agriculture; and in the Appalachians, almost 500 mountains and more than 2,000 miles of streams have been decimated, due to a mining practice called “mountaintop removal.” We have tried to tame almost every inch of space we can get into.
So, we must ask ourselves, are we acting responsibly for what we have tamed?
I think of the book The Little Prince every year at this time because on September 11, America remembers the anniversary of 9/11. This year, 2017, marks 16 years since that horrific event. Amid the sadness, I like to recall another story, the one about a Callery pear tree. Against all odds, this particular tree that was growing near the Twin Towers somehow survived the attack in clear defiance of the devastation that split apart the buildings all around it.
The tree was eight feet tall when discovered among the rubble in 2001; today it towers 30-plus feet in its small “world”—an eight-acre plaza that is now the 9/11 Memorial. Since 2013, seedlings from the tree have been donated to cities that have been through attacks, bombings, fires, hurricanes and mudslides. Last year, seedling recipients included Paris, France, where 130 people were killed on November 13, 2015, and 86 people were killed on Bastille Day in Nice on July 14, 2016, in terrorist attacks; San Bernardino, California, where 14 people were shot at an office holiday party on December 2, 2015; and Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were gunned down at a gay nightclub on June 12, 2016.
That pear tree reminds me of a certain rose, which also had a will to survive in its tiny universe.
Sometimes, the best adventure stories may not be the ones we read, but the ones we can read things into.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,
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