Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889–1982) foresaw climate change long before that phrase was invented. From his student days in Canada he saw that we must always care for and replant the world’s arboreal mantle. He knew that trees are the planet’s only means of climate stabilisation, and as their numbers declined, the Earth would become incapable of supporting the increasing burden of humanity.

St. Barbe Baker wrote 23 books about trees and forests, and many articles for magazines. Only in the last years of his life did he write about those who would help implement his vision of a world made green again by the voluntary labours of people everywhere, all planting trees for their very lives. Tall Timber is that book, now published for the first time, 29 years after his death.

Though St. Barbe Baker was severely wounded as a cavalry officer in the Great War, his life was spared to achieve great things, including gaining a degree in forestry at Cambridge whilst setting up a sheltered workshop for the war wounded, and then a posting to Kenya in his first employment as a government forestry officer.

It was in Kenya that he first grappled with his life’s great challenge: slash-and-burn agriculture as practised by the Kikuyu people of the Sahel, which resulted in declining crops whilst adding greatly to the expansion of the Sahara Desert. Here he saw in cameo what the whole world was experiencing: the rapaciousness that could only end in the extinction of our species. And it was here that he inaugurated the first Men of the Trees group.

Appealing to the better nature of the young people, he exhorted them all to plant trees even as they planted the next season’s crops. And so, by labouring for the common good, their future would be secured. This exercise, which began in 1922 in Kenya, grew into a worldwide movement.

Often working alone, he drew upon a deep well of spiritual strength. He was raised in a Hampshire parsonage, disciplined in prayer and meditation, and later became a Bahá’í (follower of a religion founded in 19th-century Persia). He was much guided by the great philosophers Gandhi, Tagore, Bahá’u’lláh (founder of the Bahá’í faith), Shoghi Effendi (Bahá’í Guardian) and Coomaraswamy. He was a frequent visitor to Findhorn, a community in which he truly felt at home. He loved trees, and the giant redwoods of California were his temple. From the age of 12 he was a vegetarian.

St. Barbe Baker had a big following and was known throughout the world. He had a special connection with countries bordering the Sahara Desert, especially those of equatorial Africa, and also with Palestine. He was equally well known in the USA, where he advised President Roosevelt on the setting up of the Civilian Conservation Corps. He attended university at Saskatoon in Canada, and during his vacations he saw at first hand the effects of land clearing for wheat farming, and the felling of the conifer forests to provide newsprint.

He took every chance to promote the ethos of Men of the Trees. In ordinary people he raised extraordinary powers of leadership. He knew that the leaders he needed did not seek power. They certainly could not expect wealth to follow their careers. But what they would enjoy was the courage to act by drawing upon the fountain of Earth’s spirit, just so long as their vision remained true.

The world is now crying out for leadership as climate change casts its chaotic shadow over our planet. No nation has adequate defence against the ravages of climate extremes; nor can we continue much longer to pay the cost of rebuilding our towns or replacing lost crops.

The remarkable thing is that St. Barbe Baker was just such a leader. He travelled the world. He carried a message that everyone understood: “Plant trees”. He targeted people who he believed would continue to carry his vision forward. He chose them well. He advised and encouraged them, and he did all this with great gentleness and compassion.

Tall Timber recounts many of his stories. It tells of his audacity in securing introductions to those who would help most. And of his respect for others who had found a style of living and caring for the Earth, distancing themselves from the rapacious economy the world simply cannot continue to support.

Tall Timber is only available from Men of The Trees Western Australia. Tel: +61 (0)8 9250 1888

Barrie Oldfield is an environmental filmmaker living in Western Australia and a former President there of Men of the Trees.