To mark National Tree Week (24th November – 2nd December) we celebrate the life of Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889-1982), the founder of the ‘Men of the Trees Society’ now known as the International Tree Foundation.
A Hampshire man – his great-grandfather had been Rector of Botley in William Cobbett’s time – Baker grew up at West End in a house appropriately named ‘The Firs’. There he helped his father, John St. Barbe Baker, in the tree nursery that he had established after turning his hobby of growing trees into a business following a financial setback. In the book My Life, My Trees Baker described how as a child he explored the extensive woodland nearby, an experience which had a profound effect on him, influencing his decision to dedicate his life to promoting a greater understanding of the vital role of trees in the natural environment.
His father’s involvement in the Evangelical Movement was another important influence and on leaving school, Baker combined his interest in forestry with missionary work when he fulfilled his ambition to move to Canada. There he attended Emmanuel College, Saskatchewan University, and also worked the land as a ‘homesteader’ in preparation for which he had learned to shoe horses in Southampton and practised pioneering in Burridge.
After three and a half years he returned to Britain to take up a place at Cambridge to read Divinity but his studies were interrupted by World War I in which he was commissioned in the Royal Horse and Field Artillery. Wounded three times, his poor health saw him stationed at the Swaythling Remount Depot, before he was invalided out in April 1918. On his return to Cambridge he took the Diploma in Forestry and on being appointed Assistant Conservator of Forests in Kenya began the conservation work for which he became so well known.
Baker was ahead of his time in recognising the role of trees as protectors of the environment and the necessity of replacing those which had to be felled for timber, fuel or simply clearing land. After achieving success in this in Kenya, he established the Men of the Trees Society and following a period of five years conserving forests in Nigeria, spent the remainder of his long life working for the Society. Travelling the world he campaigned for the preservation and restoration of forests and the afforestation of desert areas by writing articles, books and scientific papers, also giving popular lectures and holding discussions with government ministers and heads of state. Through his efforts billions of trees were planted as more and more people were persuaded of his view that ‘unless we play fair to our land the Earth we cannot continue to exist’.
In later years Baker often returned to Hampshire, notably in June 1958, when he undertook a ride of 330 miles through Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex, in emulation of William Cobbett. During the nineteen days in the saddle, he spoke to thousands of schoolchildren with the aim of raising their awareness of the environment. The completion of the ride was marked with a lunch for Cobbett’s descendants which he saw as a way of mending relations between the families, his great-grandfather and Cobbett having fallen out.
When visiting the later owners of The Firs, Baker spent time reminiscing about his childhood and recalling the first woods he knew. There he had recognised that trees maintain ‘the balance between beauty and utility’ and came to believe that ‘in the sanctuary of the woods we may breathe deeply, exhaling all thought which is not creative and inhaling the breath of life.’
Baker’s work was recognised by the award of an honorary doctorate from the University of Saskatchewan in 1971 and an OBE in 1978. Following his death in 1982 at the age of 92, he was also remembered locally with a memorial plaque and road naming at West End, and something he would undoubtedly have appreciated, the planting of a grove of thirty trees by The Men of the Trees at Hatch Grange.