The Saskatchewan Roots of the Man of the Trees
by Paul Hanley
Although born in England, Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889–1982), the world-renowned forester who became renowned as the Man of the Trees in the 1920s, had a long association with Saskatchewan.
Baker is the subject of a new biography by Paul Hanley, titled Man of the Trees: Richard St. Barbe Baker, the First Global Conservationist. It will be published in October 2018 by University of Regina Press. In her introduction to the book, Jane Goodall comments that Baker “was, without doubt, one of the greatest advocates for the protection and restoration of forests ever. I am amazed by his life and accomplishments. He is one of my heroes.”
Baker came here as a youth in 1908 to homestead at Beaver Creek, near Saskatoon. One of the first students at the University of Saskatchewan, he became a lifelong friend of the Rt. Hon. John G. Diefenbaker, who Baker had initiated as a freshman. As a lumberjack at Big River, he awoke to the need to conserve forests. Following service in the First World War, he studied forestry at Cambridge [England] and went on to become a conservator of forests in Nigeria and Kenya.
Baker circled the globe many times to promote tree planting and often returned to Saskatoon to visit his Alma Mater, from which he received an honorary doctorate in 1969, with then Chancellor Diefenbaker presiding. On his final world tour in 1982, at the age of 92, he planted his last tree near the Diefenbaker Centre, rising briefly from his wheelchair to join a group of children in a blessing of the tree. He died a few days later and is buried at Saskatoon’s Woodlawn Cemetery. A large afforestation site on the edge of Saskatoon has been named after him.
Arguably the first conservationist to work on a global scale, Baker was well ahead of his time in advocating sustainable forestry. He also wrote more than 30 books on trees. He correctly predicted the global impacts of deforestation decades before the notion was widely accepted.
Baker’s extraordinary network of contacts included heads of state, leaders of thought, visionaries, eminent scientists, and ordinary people everywhere who loved trees. He had a particular affinity with indigenous people, especially in Africa, where he was the first white man inducted into the secret society of Kikuyu Elders. He often attributed his early appreciation for ecology to his discussions with Charlie Eagle and other friends he met at Whitecap Dakota First Nation, near his Saskatchewan homestead.
He started the first broadly-based international environmental organization—Men of the Trees—in the 1920s. It was at one time active in 108 nations. In the 1930s, he was instrumental in the campaign to save California’s Redwoods and in promoting the Civilian Conservation Corps with his friend, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the 1950s, Baker crossed the Sahara on a groundbreaking ecological survey. At the age of 74, he travelled the length of New Zealand (more than 1,500 kms) on horseback, stopping at schools to promote tree planting. In his 80s, he took up the study of Chinese, intending to cross the Gobi on a Mongolian pony. In his 90s, he did tour China to promote tree planting. In his latter years, he became a close associate of the famous new age community at Findhorn [Scotland], which republished his book My Life My Trees.
His greatest obsession was the idea of reforesting the Sahara by way of a military-style campaign requiring an army of 25 million tree planters. Twice he travelled around this desert, visiting every Saharan leader to promote the project.
Many of Baker’s ideas and projects, that seemed outlandish when they were proposed, have become widely appreciated today. For example, the Great Green Wall of the Sahara, which he proposed 60 years ago, is now being planted by the nations of the Sahel. Today, he is recognized as a pioneer of the global environmental movement.
For more information on Paul Hanley’s book visit uofrpress.ca/Books/M/Man-of-the-Trees.