Richard St Barbe Baker: Man of The Trees
When we speak of conservationists many would mention John Muir, Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau, Rachel Carson, or David Attenborough. But the one who preceded them all was Richard St. Barbe Baker, whose global scope in inspiring preservation of our planet and particularly its forests was well before its time.
As a child of five St Barbe Baker wandered into a woodland he’d been warned-off by his parents and disappeared for a time. He recounted that he got lost but wasn’t at all afraid, finding himself in a glade where the sun poured through and bathed the earthen floor in light. And there he had an epiphany of connection with the trees and with nature that lasted his entire life. The rest of the world was to benefit immeasurably from his inspiration from then forward.
Initially, he learned from harsh example as well, relocating as a young man to Saskatchewan, Canada, where involvement in the lumber trade laid bare before his eyes the waste of logging practices and the plight of fast-disappearing tracts of ancient trees. St. Barbe Baker returned to the UK, served in the military, studied forestry at Cambridge University and from there set out on a tour of the planet and its woodland repositories that lasted until his death.
The tree foundation originally created by him in Kenya -- where, as part of the Colonial Civil Service he successfully encouraged the indigenous people to take up the replanting of forests -- ultimately blossomed into a Men of the Trees effort that circled the globe, taking in 53 countries, eventually being recast as the International Tree Foundation which survives and thrives today.
St. Barbe Baker was known for discovering that the Sahara Desert had once been a great expanse of trees, from one coast of Africa to the other at its widest point. A continental forest the size of Australia. There, he instituted the reestablishment of a “Great Green Wall” that would rival the Amazon jungles and, although the project wasn’t completed in his lifetime, it’s been reinstituted now.
Having been raised a Christian by fundamentalist Protestant parents, he attended a conservation conference in England as a young man and came across kindred spirits who pointed out that his profound belief in the value of nature to humankind mirrored the revelation of Baha’u’llah, the prophet of the Baha’is faith whose Writings say that the spiritual world is reflected in nature and all its attributes found there. This is a first-hand example of the nature of all reality. St. Barbe Baker investigated the Faith and embraced it.
In Paul Hanley’s 2017 biography of St Barbe, Charles, Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, wrote of him: “He raised the alarm and prescribed a solution: one third of every nation should be tree covered. He practiced permaculture and agro-ecology in Nigeria before those terms existed and was among the founding figures of organic farming in England.”
St. Barbe maintained an ongoing collaboration with the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi. Working on reforestation in Palestine, Baker travelled to Haifa to meet the Guardian for the first time in 1929.
Shoghi Effendi met him half way and handed him a big cheque for the Men of the Trees, asking Baker to make him the first ‘Life Member’. In the tradition of his grandfather Abdu’l-Baha, who contributed funds to help found the global charity Save the Children, Shoghi Effendi helped launch the Men of the Trees in the Holy Land with a financial donation.
In 1945 St. Barbe began a series of annual international meetings which drew conservationists from dozens of countries. These forward-thinking conclaves became known as “World Forestry Charter Gatherings.” For twelve consecutive years, up to his death in 1957, Shoghi Effendi sent inspirational cables to that body. Two examples:
DESIRE EXPRESS ADMIRATION YOUR ESSENTIALLY HUMANITARIAN WORK NOBLE OBJECTIVE RECLAIM DESERTS SPIRIT CO-OPERATION FOSTERED BY YOUR UNDERTAKINGS WISH YOU EVERY SUCCESS.
Cable dated 21 May 1956 to World Forestry Charter Luncheon, London.
DELIGHTED STEADY PROGRESS ACHIEVED MEN OF THE TREES WORLD OVER ESPECIALLY HOPES PLAN RECLAMATION DESERT AREAS AFRICA.
Cable dated 22 May 1957 to World Forestry Charter Luncheon, London.
The Foundation is by no means St Barbe’s only contribution to the environment. He saw tree cover as equivalent to the skin of the earth, keeping soil in place and enriching its fertility. It is estimated that bodies founded or inspired by him have planted 26 billion trees. He stood up for forest people’s rights, and raised the standard of living of many disadvantaged people.
From mid-2022 to mid-2023, the International Tree Foundation celebrates its centenary and the unparalleled legacy of an outstanding Baha’i, St. Barbe Baker.
[We thank the Chairman of the International Tree Foundation in the United Kingdom, Stephen Vickers, for his kind contributions to this post.]