Man of the Trees

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 6. October 2018 - 20:54

Man of the Trees

Hanley, Paul. 2018. Man of the Trees: Richard St. Barbe Baker, the first global conservationist
Regina, Saskatchewan: University of Regina Press, 300 p.
book review by Arthur Dahl

There are unsung heroes or ancestors of the environment and sustainability movement that need to be rediscovered and honoured for their foresight. One is Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) (see book review by Dahl 2016). Another is Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889-1982). Now IEF member Paul Hanley has written the definitive biography of St. Barbe, as he preferred to be known, published in Canada in October 2018.

Paul met St. Barbe and some of his close friends, and had access to his archives, and has pulled together all these sources to trace the amazing life and significance of St. Barbe, forester, indefatigable speaker and author, world traveller and Bahá’í. It is an unforgettable read. The book includes a foreword by HRH the Prince of Wales and an introduction by Jane Goodall.

Hanley provides detailed documentation to show how St. Barbe deserves to be called the first global conservationist. “Since his time in Africa in the early 1920s he had recognized the great danger of environmental destruction, that humankind was destroying the earth, thus threatening its future. He saw and described the future of Africa blighted by desertification and drought; envisioned the need for sustainable development far in advance of the spirit of the 1987 Brundtland Report; foresaw the Third World fuel wood crisis; grasped the global character of environment and development and the need for concerted action at the international level; understood the effect of forests on climate, thought at the time to be nonsense; foregrounded the issue of conserving biodiversity; and promoted the intrinsic value of trees and forests above and beyond any economic consideration” (p. 153).

Baker was born in England, educated on the Canadian frontier and at Cambridge, wounded in World War I, and joined the Colonial Service as a forester in Kenya, where he co-founded Men of the Trees (now the International Tree Foundation) in 1922 to incite the Kikuyu to reforest their land. He came to appreciate the wisdom of indigenous peoples in protecting the land and forest, and was expelled from the Colonial Service for interposing himself and taking a blow intended for an African.

He went on to develop techniques for sustainable forest yield in Nigeria; initiated the reforestation of Palestine, where the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, became the first life member of Men of the Trees in 1929; worked for many years to conserve the redwoods of California; supported reforestation and desertification control in Australia and New Zealand; aided the Chipko “tree hugger” movement in the Himalayas; and organized a series of World Forestry Charter Gatherings in London to build diplomatic support for forest conservation. Reversing the desertification in the Sahara desert became his preoccupation, leading a expedition across the desert, and later all around its circumference, and proposing a Green Front to hold it back, which many years later is now being realised. He was infinitely practical, always planting trees and carrying seeds in his pockets, while appreciating the importance of the spiritual. He gave thousands of talks to conferences and school children, met heads of state and the Pope, received an OBE from Queen Elizabeth, and never stopped working for trees until his passing at the age of 92.

As Hanley has put it so well: “Baker had an inherent sense of world citizenship, feeling equally at home in Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, the Antipodes, Asia, and Europe, through all of which he had travelled and many parts of which he knew intimately. To this universalism was added his powerful sense of the oneness of life, a natural understanding of the interrelationships and interdependence of a global ecosphere. He knew instinctively that peace and unity were linked to a right relationship to the earth, to the land and its forests. Fed by his biblical background, his adopted Bahá’í faith, and his training in forest ecology, a vision took shape, a prophetic vision of a great, global enterprise to restore the damaged earth as a vehicle for the unification of humankind. The biblical vision of the end times, of peace and harmony in an agrarian society, of the desert blooming, of spears beat into pruning hooks, loomed large in his mind.” (p. 152)

Everyone interested in conservation, environment, sustainability and forestry, or just lovers of trees, needs to read this book and be inspired by what one person can accomplish for the planet in a lifetime.

Last updated 6 October 2018