The Men of the Trees

Last week the cyclone that battered the western coast of India left thousands of trees, old and young, uprooted. It also saw the demise of the venerable tree man of India Sundarlal Bahuguna to whom we paid tribute earlier this week.

Many of us (then) young environmental educators cut our teeth on the legend of Chipko and its inspiring leaders. But behind these movements and leaders were earlier pioneers who paved their thinking and the way. One of these was a man who Sundarlal Bahuguna called his Guru, and who in turn considered Bahuguna as his kindred soul

This was Richard St. Barbe Baker, an English biologist and botanist, environmental activist and author who is known as the pioneer of a worldwide movement to plant trees, and remembered simply as the Man of the Trees. 

Richard was born in 1889 in Hampshire in England in a family descended from lines of farmers, parsons and evangelists. Growing up in a home that was surrounded by woods young Richard spent hours wandering among the trees and getting to know and love them. He also spent a lot of time gardening, and developed a lifelong belief in the value of manual work. After school Richard travelled to Canada in search of adventure while he did some missionary work. There he saw how the prairie was being destroyed and the soil being degraded by unsound agricultural practices. Young Richard was shocked and shaken; he felt that he was seeing Mother Earth being stripped alive. Richard had the head of a scientist but the heart of a humanitarian which could not bear to see the forest cover being torn from the earth. He returned to England to study forestry at Cambridge. After suspending his studies to serve in World War I, he graduated, and went to Kenya as a colonial forester in the early 1920s.

In Kenya Richard witnessed the environmental devastation that resulted from a combination of the traditional slash-and-burn farming methods of the region, overgrazing by goats, and from the colonial farmers’ introduction of crops and methods requiring enormous acreage. He developed a plan to restore the land by planting food crops between rows of young trees. But he faced tremendous resistance from the indigenous Kikuyu people who believed that planting new trees was “God’s business”.

Quite different from the ‘White Man’s’ attitude to native populations, Richard felt that he needed to gain their trust. As he later wrote: To be in a better position to help them I studied their language, their folklore and tribal customs, and was initiated into their secret society, an ancient institution which safeguarded the history of the past which was handed down by word of mouth through its members.

Soon I came to understand and love these people and wanted to be of service to them. They called me 
“Bwana M‘Kubwa,” meaning “Big Master,” but I said, “I am your M‘tumwe” (slave).

Richard looked to one of their long-held traditional practices—holding dances to commemorate significant moments as an opportunity to also promote an awareness of the significance of tree planting and conservation.  From this integration of cultural values and environmental stewardship was born the Dance of the Trees. His work of healing the land in partnership with the Kikuyus led to his becoming the first white person inducted into the secret society of Kikuyu Elders. He was given the name Watu wa Miti, The Man of the Trees, an appellation that became the name of an international organization that began as his first reforestation project in 1922.

In 1924 Richard embraced the Baha’i Faith and his deep belief was expressed in a love for all forms of life and in his lifelong dedication to the natural environment. His personal mission of spreading the message of the importance of trees and forests in sustaining life was carried through his organisation originally called Men of the Trees which grew into The International Tree Foundation, the first international non-governmental organization working with the environment. This is just one of many organizations he established in his lifetime.

St. Barbe’s formal work as a forester and his personal mission took him to many countries in Africa as well as other parts of the world including New Zealand. He looked upon the world as his garden

Perhaps among the places and people that touched him the most was India.  In 1959 Baker came to India, where he assisted Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in instituting a tree-planting program to address the Indian desert problem and to raise the water table. He made similar efforts in Pakistan, Australia, and other countries affected by encroaching deserts.

In 1977 Richard came to India to participate in the International Vegetarian Congress. This is where he met Sundarlal Bahuguna who had come down from the hills especially to meet him. In an article written in 1979 Sundarlal recalled how “Two months earlier I had written a letter to him at his Sussex address through the Ecologist, offering my services for his mission, while giving a brief account of the ‘Chipko movement’ which we had launched to save trees in the Himalaya. I had made a request to him to devote some time for the Himalaya on his arrival in India. He never received my letter, but as what I had read about him inspired in me a profound veneration for him, I had come all the way from the hills to Delhi as if on a pilgrimage to have his ‘darshan’. When I touched his feet, he kept his hand on my head and gave me an affectionate pat. He does not shake hands but acknowledges greetings with folded hands. I felt as if I was in the presence of a heavenly soul.

In July 1989 on the occasion of St. Barbe Baker’s birth centenary, Sundarlal spoke at the International Conference of ‘The Men of The Trees, Trees are Life’ at Reading University, England. He shared how St Barbe Baker got engaged with the Chipko movement.

As soon as he heard about the Chipko Movement in the Himalaya he left the conference hall (of the Vegetarian Conference) and decided to go there. In those, days I was regarded as an undesirable person, because we were fighting against the so-called scientific felling of trees. The important people in Delhi did not want him to go to the Himalaya. To persuade him they said. “You are an old man (he was then 88) and in view of your failing health you should not take the risk of travelling through the rugged mountains”. He replied, “At the most it will mean my death. I am already living on bonus. I live only for a day and if I die for the cause of the Himalaya, that will be the most glorious event of my life. I will go straight to heaven.” When they saw his determination, they asked, “Since when do you know this man with whom you are going?” He instantly replied “What do you mean, since when have we been knowing each other–for many lives!” We were together for eleven days. I took him to Vinoba Bhave, the walking saint of India, the disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. When the moment of our departure came, I was very sad. I asked, “When shall we meet again?” He cheered me up by saying, “We shall be meeting each other during our prayers and while working to save trees.”

St Barbe Baker died at the age of 91 on 9 June 1982 during a visit to Saskatoon, Canada, only a few days after planting his last tree. Sundarlal Bahuguna died on 21 May 2021 at age 94. Both inspirational figures whose lives were a unique blend of environmental awareness, spiritual activism, and total dedication to their cause. Their life was indeed their message.


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