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Richard St Barbe Baker and the Life of Trees

Mark and Hugh's local history column this week features Richard St Barbe Baker, a remarkable Hampshire man who was way ahead of his time

Mark and Hugh signoff 600x400

Ed Note: It's fascinating this week thanks to Mark and Hugh to learn about Richard St Barbe Baker originally of Hampshire. His name suggests he was also related to the wonderful Ann St Barbe whose generosity led to Lymington's St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery but as Mark explains below our combined research hasn't found the evidence - if you know more please do get in touch and we'll pass any information on to St Barbe, as well! 

Read on below! But before you do so, just in case you don't already receive our Weekly What's On e-newsletter do sign up to receive it on Friday mornings! 

 

Ahead of his time: Richard St Barbe Baker

Born in 1889 in West End which is close to Southampton, Richard St Barbe Baker was a man so far ahead of his time that he ought to be considered one of our greatest thinkers. Today we are all painfully aware of the awful effects that human activity can have on our planet. Recently, for the first time ever, a coroner recorded that the tragic death of a young London girl was due to poor air quality. In Asia, forests are being destroyed in order that we can plant palm from which we harvest oil. Even today we are still capable of questionable acts. Baker realised the importance of trees very early in his life. For a while, he was a logger in Canada where he recoiled at the wholesale destruction of forests. He realised that trees were vital to the soil and that without them the soil could be blown or washed away. Have you heard of the term ‘dustbowl’? This was a man-made disaster where US farmers using newly acquired petrol-powered tractors ploughed up native grasses in order to plant cereal. There were several droughts in the thirties and the dry and unanchored topsoil was simply blown away. Huge clouds of dust reduced visibility in towns to just three feet. Farming families were unable to survive and moved west to California. It doesn’t do to mess with nature; she’ll bite back. Despite our newly acquired awareness of the planet and its needs we continue to create man-made problems for ourselves. Baker was raising matters long before environmental concerns became mainstream. These days we are much more aware of the importance of trees. As a carpenter, I can tell you that the motto FSC which stands for Forest Stewardship Council symbol is printed on all of the wood that I use. This means that what I am using has been sourced sustainably which can only be a good thing. Exotic hardwoods such as mahogany used to be easily available but we humans were felling it faster than it could grow. Now there is a thriving trade in illegally logged timber. Commerce is killing our forests, the lungs of the world.

The tree, a magnificent organism.

A while back I was at a friend’s house helping him to build a fence. There were workers digging a trench for a cable or something. I started to chat to the guy nearest to us who was paddling about at the bottom of the one metre trench. It was swimming in water and they had a small submersible pump chugging away in order to keep the level down. He said casually that just fifty metres further back where they had been digging beneath a large oak tree, the trench was bone dry. So then for this article I did some grubbing about in order to supply you with what are some rather amazing facts. A large oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons of water a year. That’s 110 gallons per day which is pumped from the roots to the bark and then all the way out to the leaves. It’s no wonder the trench beneath the oak tree was dry, the tree was drinking the lot! I was watching a nature programme recently and the presenter was using a sensitive microphone which was pressed against the bark in order to listen to the tree. We could actually hear the tree moving water from the roots to the leaves. The whole process is fascinating.

The air that we breathe.

You all know about nasty old carbon dioxide and I am sure that you have read of the ‘carbon footprint’. You might also have read, incredulously, of a certain celebrity who claimed that it was OK for her to fly to the US because she could afford to plant sufficient trees to offset her carbon footprint. Idiotic doesn’t even cover it. How demeaning it is for the rest of us when we realise that we are actually too poor to emulate her shining example.

 As you probably know, the products of combustion are carbon dioxide and water. Every time we drive or use the gas-fired boiler to heat water, we pollute. The air that we breathe is made up of 21% oxygen and around 78% nitrogen with a few other bits and bobs. When we burn fuel, we convert the oxygen to carbon dioxide. The nitrogen, which is inert, is simply there for the ride. Somehow, we need to replenish our atmosphere with oxygen. This is where our wonderful trees step in; well they would if they could walk. Trees utilise a process called photosynthesis which using the power of the sun converts carbon dioxide to oxygen. How clever is that? Thank goodness that trees are cleverer than some of our celebrities. It is estimated that the average tree supplies enough oxygen per day to sustain four people. Next time you’re passing one, perhaps on the way to the pub, a little nod of gratitude might be in order. It’s difficult to survive without beer but impossible without oxygen.

Men of the Trees.

Baker must have been an inspirational sort. He managed to communicate his ideas to the great and good and in doing so created an enormous not for profit organisation. This all started in Kenya where deforestation had started in Roman times. Gradually he replanted trees of local origin and brought stability to the soil. When he travelled across America, he was a sought-after speaker who was granted an audience with Roosevelt. They established the Civilian Conservation Corps which, it is said, eventually had six million youths working voluntarily. Not bad for a lad who grew up in West End and explored Beacon Hill, an area I am very familiar with. The Men of the Trees organisation later changed their name to the International Tree Foundation. There are around one hundred chapters worldwide which are estimated to have planted around twenty-six BILLION trees across the globe. That is a truly astonishing statistic and a reminder of what wonders can be achieved through sheer force of personality

Your museum and art gallery.

The St Barbe family was a major influence in Lymington and the surrounding countryside over many years. It was thanks to Ann St Barbe’s generosity that the town’s first National School was established in 1835. Towards the end of the 20th century, the old Victorian building was taken over and the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery was created. (See also our article about St Barbe School for more about this story!)

Your scribbler is not a cultured man, I can lift heavy weights and use foul language but none of my nearest and dearest would ever describe me as having ‘culcha’. On the other hand, our cartoonist Hugh is artistic and cultured. He tells me that thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, New Forest District Council and generous citizens the whole building was brought up to date and made even more people-friendly. We believe Richard St Barbe Baker was related in some way to the St Barbe family, but haven’t been able to discover the link yet. If you know how they’re connected please let St Barbe Museum know. The gallery is continually looking at ways of involving local artists and encouraging young and old to take an interest in art and the town’s past. Why not drop by? You might be pleasantly surprised. In any case, art covers such a wide range of subjects and media that there is almost certainly something to enrich us all, even this old fool. For more information click to the St Barbe Featured Business Page on this website.

Age is no limit, only your attitude.

In 1977 at the age of 88 Baker visited India where destructive logging at the foothills of the Himalayas had caused terrible damage. Landslides caused by unanchored soil due to logging frequently blocked rivers. Government officials who were facing a Ghandi like non-violent protest by villagers, especially women, were keen for him to go back to where he had come from. Apparently, the important people of Delhi urged him not to go to the Himalayas as he was an old man and they were worried that the journey might be too much for him. His response? He said that he was already living on borrowed time and that just one day spent in saving these trees would mean that should he die he would go straight to heaven. How can anyone argue with such powerful faith and devotion? Women would hug the trees preventing the loggers from felling them. The incredibly resilient villagers won the day through completely non-violent methods, simply civil disobedience which was espoused by Ghandi all those years before. This is an amazing (but increasingly rare) story of how big corporations and disingenuous politicians can be humbled by the majority.

A memorial in little old West End to a giant of conservation.

There is now a memorial to Baker in West End village. It is a plaque in bas relief by the artist Jill Tweed. Also, there is a road named after him. I have always known the road having driven past it many times but never known the origin. At least now we know a little more about the museum and art gallery. When you regain your freedom why not make a visit to the St Barbe Museum and Gallery?

St Barbe art gallery cartoon

For more about the history of St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery click here to read our article.
For more information about visiting St Barbe click here 

More tales and cartoons for Lymington and the New Forest from Mark and Hugh

If you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:

Our star, our sun, our salt!
To Lymington or Cuba

The Auld Mug

Seeds of success

Moonlit meeting with cetaceans 

Trees and what they tell us
Cartography and trig pillars

Pony drifts and pannage in the New Forest
A journey from the New Forest via Lymington
The brilliance - and persistence - of Marconi

Equality in the skies
Bees pollinators par excellence 
Cordless home entertainment

The joy of sheds

When the Isle of Wight was just Wight
Bucklers Hard

Salisbury Cathedral 
Pond Life in our Forests 
Bombs Away 
Baileys Hard 
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Heath fires
Lymington Lido
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...