Deep roots

British forester's love of trees fostered early environmental movement


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Last year, in the Jeff McKay film Call of the Forest, Ontario botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger asked viewers to “pledge to plant one native tree each year for six years to help save our planet.”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/10/2018 (1569 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Last year, in the Jeff McKay film Call of the Forest, Ontario botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger asked viewers to “pledge to plant one native tree each year for six years to help save our planet.”

Last month, in a video that featured actor Alec Baldwin, conservationist Jane Goodall said conserving forests and replanting trees is “one-third of the solution to climate change.”

But read Man of the Trees, Saskatoon author Paul Hanley’s new biography of British forester, conservationist and author Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889-1982), and it becomes clear these ideas are not new.

University of Saskatchewan Library, University Archives & Special Collections, Richard St. Barbe Baker fonds Cutline...

That’s why Prince Charles could be compelled to write a foreword that references his 2015 speech opening the United Nations Paris Climate Conference and then admits “It occurs to me that I could have been invoking Richard St. Barbe Baker, who had made similar appeals as far back as the 1920s.” (Or why Goodall was willing to write an introduction to Man of the Trees.)

The founder of the early non-governmental organization Men of the Trees — now known as the International Tree Foundation — Baker criss-crossed the world for six decades, lecturing to crowds publicly and haranguing government officials privately on the deforestation and desertification taking place on every continent.

Baker “grew up among the trees” in his family’s tree nursery. When he was five, he wandered in the forest alone and had what he later described as an ecstatic experience: “In the wood among the pines, it seems that for one brief moment I had tasted immortality, and in a few seconds I had lived an eternity. This experience may last forever.”

But despite his father’s wish that Baker take over the family business, Baker had spent much of his childhood reading his great-uncle’s letters, penned when he was a young man homesteading in Canada.

Baker was determined to experience Canada for himself and was a willing recruit for George Lloyd — the Anglican bishop of Saskatchewan and namesake of Lloydminster who’d fought in the Riel Resistance — who was looking for young men to enrol in the new University of Saskatoon, study divinity and minister to settlers.

Baker arrived in Saskatoon in 1909 and was one of the first cohorts of students at the U of S, where he befriended John Diefenbaker and spent time at the Whitecap Dakota First Nation. After his stint in Canada, where he farmed, trapped and broke horses in addition to his church work and studies, Baker returned to England.

Injured three times in the First World War, surrounded by muddy trenches and blasted trees, Baker had an epiphany: he would devote himself to forestry.

After completing his studies at Cambridge, Baker spent the 1920s working as a forester for the British Colonial Office in Africa. He worked in Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya for the rest of the decade, where he laid the foundation for the Men of the Forest, which relied on a network of Indigenous volunteers reforesting areas with native species.

Baker left the Colonial Office after a dispute and never worked steadily again, relying on proceeds from his books, lecture tours and benefactors to keep the Men of the Forest going.

He loved the stands of enormous redwoods in California and worked to preserve as many of them as possible, but his true passion was reversing the desertification of much of Africa, Australia and the Middle East. His last major project was a plan for the reclamation of the Sahara Desert.

Though he had supporters in high places and was a media darling, Baker’s ideas ran counter to those of the day: that natural resources were endless and development was always positive. So while he convinced a variety of governments to plant millions of trees, in most places the ancient forests were being cleared at an unsustainable rate.

In 1982, after six decades advocating for the trees, Baker revisited Saskatoon. At age 93 he was frail, but helped plant a tree at the University of Saskatchewan, which had given him an honorary degree in 1971. He died days later and was buried at the base of two large conifers in Woodlawn Cemetery.

In writing his biography, Hanley had the advantage that Baker’s papers had been donated to the University of Saskatchewan. He was also perhaps drawn to the fact that, like him, Baker was a convert to the Bahá’í faith.

Though this book is enlivened by excerpts from Baker’s books, it sometimes reads like a frenzied travelogue instead of a thorough discussion of the ideas that were Baker’s life’s work. The sections on Baker’s early years in Canada and Africa are also problematic; Hanley frames Baker as an adventurer and natural leader instead as a member of the colonial governments that largely created problems he spent the rest of his life trying to reverse.

University of Saskatchewan Library, University Archives & Special Collections, Richard St. Barbe Baker fonds Cutline...

It is both heartening and depressing to see that the ideas Baker set out so clearly in the 1920s and 30s are only now gaining traction around the world.

But visit FortWhyte Alive this fall, where hundreds of white spruce seedlings were planted by Tree Canada, or the boreal forest of Pimachiowin Aki, Canada’s latest UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you might just become a convert to Baker’s (and Beresford-Kroeger’s and Goodall’s) ideas.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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