Man of the Trees, Richard St. Barbe Baker
I wonder sometimes whether people 75-100 years ago were ever concerned about the effects of their actions on the climate. Perhaps they had too much on their mind with world wars and fears of “the bomb,” to care about the carbon pollution coming out of their cars and their daily energy usage. Or perhaps they just couldn’t foresee how much our consumption would grow.
But one man did seem to have the foresight. Nicknamed “The Man of the Trees,” Richard St. Barbe Baker — a Christian in his early life, a later member of the Baha’i faith, and an animist — set in motion tree-planting initiatives around the world — initiatives that could have mitigated some of the climate effects we see today.
An Early Calling to Care for the Earth
St. Barbe, as he was known, was born on October 9, 1889 at West End, near Southampton, Hampshire, England. Descended from a family that included clergy members and dedicated tree planters, he was exposed to rigorous theological debate and horticulture from an early age.
He traced his deep love of trees to a specific, transcendent experience getting lost in the forests near his home at the age of five. The mysterious journey through the luxuriant canopy of bright green over his head enthralled and exhilarated him. It was a “woodland rebirth,” an experience never repeated in again in his life.
He wrote, “I had entered the temple of the woods. I sank to the ground in a state of ecstasy.”
After completing his secondary education, St. Barbe left for Saskatchewan, Canada. It was there that he became concerned about the wasteful use of timber resources and the destructive prairie farming practices that created dust-bowl conditions through the loss of topsoil. At this point, he later recalled, his commitment to conservation began. He attributed its quickening to the influence of the Cree, First Nations people who lived with and felt a part of the forests.
St. Barbe pursued divinity and forestry degrees, and set out to work in the field of forest protection in the British colonies in Africa.
Work in Africa
In Kenya, St. Barbe witnessed the environmental devastation that resulted from the tradition slash-and-burn farming methods of the region, from overgrazing by goats, and from the colonial farmers’ introduction of crops and methods requiring enormous acreage. He wanted to fix the problem, and turned to a resource many colonists throughout history have ignored: the indigenous people.
He studied their language, their folklore, and tribal customs, and was initiated into their secret society, an ancient institution which safeguarded the history of the past and was handed down by word of mouth through its members.
“Soon I came to understand and love these people and wanted to be of service to them,” said St. Barbe. “They called me Bwana M’Kubwa, meaning Big Master, but I said, ‘I am your M’tumwe‘ (slave).
He held meetings with Kikuyu chiefs and elders to urge them to counter their destructive farming methods by planting trees. Supported by Chief Josiah Njonjo and inspired by the ceremonial dances that the local people used to mark all occasions, St. Barbe devised a ceremonial tree-planting dance to encourage the young village men to plant trees, to replace lost forests, and to inaugurate a crop-and-tree scheme. He called for volunteers to join together to become Watu wa Miti (Men of the Trees).
Fifty Kikuyu warriors participated in the first dance of the trees on July 22, 1922. From this small beginning, the Men of the Trees organization, which St. Barbe formally founded in England in 1924, spread to many other countries. Now known as the International Tree Foundation, it has a large membership of women and men from all walks of life. In 1978 Prince Charles became the society’s patron.
A Man of Faith
A member of a family of clergymen, St. Barbe was a Christian in his youth. While in Canada, he enrolled in Emmanual College, the divinity school at the newly established University of Saskatchewan, with the intent to assist in strengthening the Christian congregations of homestead settlers. When he returned in England, he embarked on a divinity degree at Ridley Hall, Cambridge.
But St. Barbe is best known for his affiliation with the Baha’i faith. After he left Kenya, he attended a conference “Some Living Religions within the British Empire” held in London in 1924. Claudia S. Coles, an American living in London who was one of a number of Baha’i’s attending the conference, approached him and told him about the Baha’i faith.
Ten days later, he sailed to Nigeria with a supply of Baha’i books provided by Coles. He studied them during the voyage and became a Baha’i soon after. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i faith and first lifetime member of the Men of the Trees, referred to St. Barbe as “the first member of the English gentry to join the Baha’i Faith.”
St. Barbe also believed in a spiritual essence to nature — a belief of worldview called animism. Edward Goldsmith, an environmentalist, author, and philosopher, once asked him, “Do you agree that we, in the ecological movement, must all be animists?” He answered “Yes, that is why I so much admire the world of the people at Findhorn.” St. Barbe had a vision of a utopia where the spirit and nature connected:
“I picture village communities of the future living in valleys protected by sheltering trees on the high ground. They will have fruit and nut orchards and live free from disease and enjoy leisure, liberty and justice for all, living with a sense of their one-ness with the earth and with all living things.”
An Environmental Prophecy
In the middle of the 20th century, St. Barbe began to see that the Earth’s ecosystems were entering a state of crisis. He believed the planet was being skinned alive. He said, “If a man loses one third of his skin he dies; if a tree loses one-third of its bark, it too dies. If the Earth is a ‘sentient being,’ would it not be responsible to expect that if it loses one-third of its trees and vegetable covering, it will also die?”
St. Barbe led the first Sahara University Expedition covering some 9,000 miles of desert from Algiers to Mount Kilimanjaro. The survey was designed to study the speed of the desert’s advance and figure out way to slow it down. St. Barbe believed that the desert encroachment could be stopped with the planting of a “Green Front” of trees 4,000 miles long and 30 miles wide along the southern reaches of the Sahara.
In 1954, in Land of Tane, he wrote, “When the trees go, the rain goes, the climate deteriorates, the water table sinks, the land erodes and desert conditions soon appear.” Planting trees was a way to save the Earth.
St. Barbe spent the next thirty years promoting his Green Front proposal and participating in movements and programs to reforest the planet. He traveled to Central and South America and was among the first to propose and plead for an economic solution to halt the devastation of the Amazon rain forests. And, at the age of 91, he even participated in the Chipko tree-hugging movement in India’s Himalayas.
If Only More of Us Had Listened…
St. Barbe was a huge influence to the environmental movement and achieved many victories for the Earth during his lifetime. But it’s hard not to look at our older generations and wish that more had listened to the genius of his proposals.
The global community is struggling trying to find answers to the climate problem that will save the planet and encourage economic prosperity. Large areas in California, Australia, and Africa face hotter and dryer temperatures and desertification. Government scientists in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have admitted that the only way to stop the terrible floods that, every year, engulf tens of thousands of villages, drown large numbers of people and their cattle, and destroy crops, is to reforest the stripped mountains of the Himalayas.
Just think if we had listened to St. Barbe. If billions of trees, many of which would now be a half-a-century-old, had been planted in areas that are now deserts. If governments in developing countries didn’t have to scramble to find resources to save their people. Would we live in a more peaceful society? Would we fear the weather and nature less?
Thankfully, the Man of the Trees wasn’t the last of his kind. We still have many other great, environmental leaders who can help guide us towards the utopia St. Barbe envisioned.
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