October 1, 2014

Richard St Barbe Baker

Richard St. Barbe Baker will always be known as ‘the Man of the Trees’. In Kenya, where he was assistant conservator of forests for many years, he was known as Baba Wya Miti, ‘the affectionate Father of the Trees’, also as Bwana Wya Miti, ‘the Master of the Trees’. In Australia, he was often referred to as ‘the King of the Trees’ and sometimes as ‘the Saint of the Trees’; in California, he has been called ‘the Redwood Saint’.

This obituary was published in The Ecologist Vol. 12 No. 4, July–August 1982.



I like to think of St. Barbe as a prophet, in the Old Testament sense of the term; that is to say, as a wise man, a teacher and an inspirer. Alan Grainger writes of

“St. Barbe’s unique capacity to pass on his enthusiasm to others. . . . Many foresters all over the world found their vocations as a result of hearing ‘The Man of the Trees’ speak. I certainly did, but his impact has been much wider than that. Through his global lecture tours, St. Barbe has made millions of people aware of the importance of trees and forests to our planet.”

He has also done so, of course, via Men of the Trees, the association he founded in 1922 and which now has branches throughout the world.

St. Barbe, besides being a wise man, a teacher and an inspirer, was a tireless fighter for the values and ideas that he held to be so important and on whose acceptance by the world at large, he felt sure, must ultimately hinge the fate of our planet and of all those who inhabit it. Those who have looked seriously at the problems that we and future generations must face realise that St. Barbe’s values and ideas are quite as important as he made them out to be.

The Global 2000 report to the last president of the United States, for instance, specifically concludes that, of all the problems we are faced with today, deforestation is probably the most serious, particularly in the developing countries.

St. Barbe realised this decades ago. In 1954, in Land of Tane, he writes:

“When the trees go, the rain goes, the climate deteriorates, the water table sinks, the land erodes and desert conditions soon appear”.

What is more, this cannot go on forever. As St. Barbe always told us,

“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 reasonable to expect that if it loses one-third of its trees and vegetable covering, it will also die?”

Government scientists in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have now 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 over an ever wider area, is to reafforest the denuded mountains of the Himalayas.

St. Barbe knew decades ago that global reafforestation was essential. He played a key role in persuading the American government during the great depression to set up its Conservation Corps, with its tens of thousands of otherwise unemployed youths going out into the countryside to plant trees and perform other essential tasks. Today, it is a new world-wide conservation corps that is required. In his book Green Glory, Forests of the World, he proposes “that all standing armies everywhere be used for the work of essential reafforestation”. He repeated this proposal in My Life, My Tree:

“If the armies of the world now numbering 22 million, could be redeployed in planting in the desert, in eight years a 100 million people could be rehabilitated and supplied with protein rich food, grown from virgin sand.”

But such action, he realised, could not be successful unless we first obtained the full co-operation of local people everywhere. More so, it is they, rather than governments and international institutions, who should take the lead. In The New Earth Charter, he writes:

“We believe in the innate intelligence of the villagers, the country men and the workers, that they should be allowed to manage their own affairs. We believe they will put into their work not merely their hands and their feet, but their brains and their hearts. Each can experience the transcendental joy of creation, and can earn immortality and bestow immortality.”

It is for this reason that he was so impressed by the Chipko movement in the Himalayas. At the age of 91, he went there and took part in the struggle of the villagers to protect their forests. In a booklet he helped to write for the movement, he recounts how government foresters were sent to persuade the villagers to give up their struggle. The confrontation was recorded in one of the many folk songs of the Chipko movement.

In this particular song the forester asks:

“What does the forest bear?”

and answers:

“Resin, timber and foreign exchange.”

To this the village women reply in chorus:

“What does the forest bear?
Soil, water and pure air
 
Soil, water and pure air
Are the basis of our life.”

We have here a confrontation between two conflicting world views. The one sees nature as but a source of commodities to be sold on the world market. The other sees nature as St. Barbe’s “vast sentient being” and, as the Chipko villagers put it, “the basis of our life”. The one reflects the ingenuity of science and technology: the other the wisdom that is only embodied (as Eugene Odum, the father of modern ecology, admits) in the culture of traditional peoples – the wisdom that itself reflects, as St. Barbe would have put it, “The Divine Law and the Laws of Nature”, whose violation can only lead to destruction and annihilation.

“Almost everywhere in the world man has been disregarding the Divine Law and the Laws of Nature, to his own undoing. In his pride, he has rampaged over the stage of the earth, forgetting that he is only one of the players put there to play his part in harmony and oneness with all living things.”

St. Barbe realised that to stop the destruction we must abandon our present goals and move our society on to a very different course. As he writes in Land of Tane:

“Man has lost his way in the jungle of chemistry and engineering and will have to retrace his steps, however painful this may be. He will have to discover where he went wrong and make his peace with nature. In so doing, perhaps he may be able to recapture the rhythm of life and the love of the simple things of life, which will be an ever-unfolding joy to him.”

He realised too that if we did not do this soon it would be too late. In The New Earth Charter, he warned:

“This generation may either be the last to exist in any semblance of a civilised world or that it will be the first to have the vision, the bearing and the greatness to say, ‘I will have nothing to do with this destruction of life, I will play no part in this devastation of the land, I am determined to live and work for peaceful construction for I am morally responsible for the world of today and the generations of tomorrow.’”

What is required is nothing short of a spiritual renewal, a new religious world view and one very much closer to that of our forest dwelling ancestors. To begin with, we must learn once again to regard Nature as ‘holy’, as a vast ‘sentient being’ – a phrase that occurs again and again in St. Barbe’s writings. St. Barbe undoubtedly saw nature in this way:

“It is with a spirit of reverence that I approach God’s creation – this beautiful Earth. We may climb mountains or wander through field and forest, intoxicated by loveliness through the changing hours and seasons recorded by the length of shadows cast by the trees – and as we watch the pink, opalescent fingers of the dawn reaching up from beneath the dark horizon, so we wait for the sunrise of our awakening to the realisation of our kinship with the earth and all living things.”

To view Nature as a vast ‘sentient being’ is to see it as alive and imbued with a spirit or a soul, just as did our tribal ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years. Today we tend to dismiss this view as archaic, crude or rudimentary, but why, as Theodore Rozsack wonders,

“Should it be thought crude or rudimentary to find divinity brightly present in the world where others find only dead matter or an inferior order of being?”

Once we cease to see Nature in this way, once we desanctify it, it is in effect condemned. As Rozsack puts it,

“The desacralized (sic) world is doomed to become an obstacle inviting conquest, a mere object. Like the animal or the slave who is understood to have no soul, it becomes a thing of subhuman status to be worked, used up, exploited”.

What was previously our home, our temple, the abode of our gods, and a source of poetic inspiration “becomes but a source of resin, timber and foreign exchange”.

Sadly, we must concede that such an attitude is fully consistent with the ethos of the great monotheistic religions of today.

The abstract deity that we worship is indifferent to the fate of the natural world and offers it no protection against our depredations.

St. Barbe was unquestionably an animist, though we all know of his attachment to the Baha’i faith and to the Christianity of his youth. I actually posed the question to him on one of the three afternoons I spent with him in Auckland just before his departure on his final world tour. “Do you agree”, I asked, “that we, in the ecological movement, must all be animists?” He answered “Yes, that is why I so much admire the work of the people at Findhorn.”

He also recited to me those lines by Stanton Coblentz on the spirits of the redwoods, which those who knew him well must have heard many times:

I think that could the weary world but know
Communion with these spirits breathing peace
Strangely a veil would lift, a light would glow
And the dark tumult of our lives would cease.

If the world is eventually moved by St. Barbe’s inspiration and is converted by his teachings, if it adopts his strategies and eventually becomes imbued too with that animistic world view that he has preached, to what sort of world would this lead? St. Barbe described his utopia very clearly:

“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.”

This is a beautiful vision. Some may think it wildly unrealistic. I do not think so. I think, on the contrary, that it is a far more realistic goal than that towards which present policies are supposed to be taking us. The vision of St. Barbe may or may not be realised – but it could be. The only obstacles to its realisation are man-made ones. They are comparatively trivial.

The vision of Milton Friedmann and Herman Kahn – a vision which is implicit to the Worldview of Science, Technology and Industry – can only conceivably be realised if, as Paul Ehrlich puts it, “We start off by repealing the very laws of Biology and Ecology” – the laws of God as opposed to those of industrial man.

Ben Sira, author of the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, praised great teachers:

“Their fame shall eclipse the immediate triumph of kings and conquerors.”

And their bodily death

“counts for nothing – indeed it should be celebrated since great ideas must live forever.”

Of course it is difficult to agree that the death of St Barbe counts for nothing. He was a unique figure whom we shall never replace. Nevertheless I feel sure that in death, as in life, he will continue to teach and to inspire us. It is up to us, his disciples and his friends, to celebrate the life and work of Richard St. Barbe Baker. It is up to us too, to carry on the fight – as tirelessly as he did in the past; to assure that his vision is realised and that his ideas live forever.

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