Man of the Trees

7 December 2018

Man of the Trees: Richard St. Barbe Baker, The First Global Conservationist
by Paul Hanley
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$34.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-566-4

Americans have Johnny Appleseed as one of their folk heroes; Saskatchewan has Richard St. Barbe Baker, a real-life action hero. Although Baker is not as well known, he is the original tree hugger, so well documented in Paul Hanley’s biography, Man of the Trees: Richard St. Barbe Baker, The First Global Conservationist.

Born in 1889, Baker was an eccentric Englishman obsessed with trees. As a youngster, he wandered through a forest, lost but thoroughly enjoying the trees’ embrace. It was as if they’d adopted him. He felt born again.

Enthralled with stories he’d heard of Canada, Baker migrated and in 1909 took the train to Saskatoon. He was one of the first 100 students to enrol in the new University of Saskatchewan, taking out a homestead at Beaver Creek, fifteen miles from the campus. He then worked as a lumberjack north of Prince Albert. The nearby sawmill at Big River was the largest in the world at that time. Appalled at the wastage in the cutting process, Baker determined to save trees.

After nearly losing his life in World War I, he joined the British colonial service. His first posting was in Kenya, but he wound up working on reforesting projects throughout much of Africa. He survived several more near-death experiences and had ambitious plans to reforest the entire Sahara Desert.

Using his mantra, “Plant trees and save the planet,” Baker founded an international organization called Men of the Trees. They planted literally billions of trees worldwide. Baker filmed his adventures and toured on the international lecture circuit as a charismatic speaker.

In 1930, Dial Press commissioned him to write a 75,000-word book on his African experiences, illustrated with his own photographs. Given five weeks to finish his assignment, he hired three stenographer-typists and dictated from morning to night, eating only one meal a day and subsisting largely on orange juice. He completed the manuscript in ten days, then spent another week fine-tuning it. Men of the Trees: In the Mahogany Forests of Kenya and Nigeria was the first of his thirty-one books, some of which became bestsellers.

Although Baker married twice, his priority was on forests, not family. Broadcaster Lowell Thomas commented, “I believe he’ll marry a tree one of these days!” Baker died in Saskatoon, where he’s buried, as he wished, under twin conifer trees.

In describing this human dynamo, Hanley writes with passion, humour, and an abiding affection for a remarkable man who achieved international status by inspiring others to plant trees. By quoting extensive extracts from Baker’s autobiographical books, he enables readers to hear Baker speaking directly to them.

Man of the Trees contains forty-eight black and white photos, an index, notes on sources, and a list of all thirty-one books that Baker wrote. In keeping with the theme of this book, Man of the Trees is printed on Forest Stewardship Council certified paper, and one existing tree will be saved and one new tree planted for every book published. Richard St. Barbe Baker would be pleased.


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