Saturday, February 20, 2010

Baker Autobio

Baker Autobio, Part III

In an age when we live under the constant threat of out-of-control climate change, it is important to recall that the problem has been obvious for a long time to those in the know. Richard St. Barbe Baker proposed half a century ago that we take active measures not only to halt climate change but to reverse it. As an expert in forestry, he knew that trees are capable of changing the climate for the better wherever they are systematically planted. Just after the Second World War he wrote,

"We advocate that all standing armies everywhere be used for the work of essential reafforestation ... in the countries to which they belong, and that each country ... shall provide expeditionary forces to cooperate in the greater tasks of land reclamation in the Sahara and other deserts." (Richard St. Barbe Baker. Green Glory (The Forests of the World); 1947, A.A. Wyn; p. 242)

Today let us continue with Part III of the first chapter of Richard St. Barbe Baker's autobiography, "My Life, My Trees," where he tells of his early education in Canada.


While I was still at Dean Close, a man came to talk about Canada. It was not what he said but what he did that impressed itself on my mind. He wore a tail coat with stiff shirt and collar and ready-made white tie, and at one stage in his lecture he caught hold of his collar and shook it savagely and said, "Out in Canada we don't have to wear these durned things; we wear soft collars or no collars at all!"

My mind was now made up. I must go to Canada. After four years I discovered that my father was selling land to pay school fees for my education. He listened gravely when I told him that I knew of his sacrifices and that I wanted to leave school to go to Canada.

Then an old-time pioneer, Bishop Lloyd, returned from the Western Prairies. I was introduced to him by an old friend of my father, Dr. Eugene Stock, Secretary of the Church Missionary Society. Lloyd said he wanted men who would go out ahead of the railway and 'blaze the trail'. He spoke of the scattered settlers far from the towns who had no means of grace, and appealed to me to throw in my lot with a group of undergraduates at Emmanuel College, Saskatchewan University, Saskatoon.

I responded to the call and for the next few months worked hard to equip myself for my mission to Canada. I rose at five and got myself some breakfast before leaving for Southampton, where I was learning how to make horse shoes from short lengths of wrought iron.

One of my father's customers was a young fruit-grower from Burridge where my great-grandfather had owned much land which he had planted with trees. Young Roberts, the fruit-grower had bought some of this land where the timber had been felled and was having it grubbed ready for orchards and fruit gardens. I begged this young man to allow me to go and camp with him and help him lay out his property. I wanted to sleep under the stars and get fit for the work in Canada that lay ahead of me. After the day's work was done we would put on boxing gloves. In those days I rather fancied that I could punch hard -- young Roberts was a fine specimen of muscular Christianity and although I had a longer reach he made me hop around. I was always grateful to him for putting me through my paces in preparation for the North-West and have treasured his friendship through the years. After sixty years we still correspond. I had a letter from him at Frith Farm, Wickham, Hampshire, dated January 10, 1969:

"Not only did you cook for me, but you did the washing and you carted the fruit by horse and van, besides rushing about in the middle of the night and scaring that Mr. Miles who came down and slept in the tent with us, making out we were being attacked by robbers. And do you remember grinding the corn and making bread in that coal stove in the shed? Not only that, do you remember taking your little harmonium out in the Burridge Road and conducting a service each Sunday? You have always been a wonderful chap, full of good deeds and personality, and one could never keep you down."

"You come from a line of saints. I shall never forget your dear mother singing and playing on a little organ -- "There is no love like the love of Jesus" -- she played so beautifully and she meant every word of it. Both your parents were saints when the time came for them to go, and I think if you had pursued this Evangelistic work, you would have done very great work. I know what great satisfaction you have obtained from your parents."

But to return to the story.

For three and a half years I was in the hard school of the open spaces. I homesteaded south of Saskatoon and pitched my tent on Beaver Creek, where in the small hours of the morning I took delight in watching the beavers. They constructed a dam along which I could walk. It was more than one hundred and forty feet in width across a stream which had been less than a dozen feet wide when they had started building. In the winter I returned and was thrilled to find a large beaver house, the top of which protruded three to four feet above the ice. It looked like the crater of a miniature volcano with hot air and steam rising from the summit, upon the fringes of which the snow had melted to become icicles. The beavers' dam had flooded about twelve acres of meadow. From then on, the beavers became my lasting friends and I came to regard them as fellow foresters.

As one of the first hundred students at Saskatchewan University (there are 12,000 students at the University at the time of writing!) I was elected to a committee for drawing up a college yell. After much thought we decided we must combine our colours with the name of the University. This was the result:


Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan, Varsitee!

Hi bickety ki yi! Hi bickety kee!

Deo et patri! Deo et patri!

The green the white! Ki yam i yam i kee! Sas-s -s -s -s-s -skatchewan!


As sophomores we had the privilege of initiating the freshmen, and in my sophomore year one of the freshmen was Diefenbaker, afterwards Prime Minister of Canada.

My knowledge of horses was my best introduction to the Redskins, among whom social status was governed by the quality of their horsemanship. They were proud of their horses and always insisted that I rode their best. There was a happy rivalry between these friendly Indians who each claimed that they had the best horse.

Those were my bronco-busting days. In England they talk of `breaking' a horse while in France they use the verb 'dresser' or to finish a horse. It is a pity that the old English term to 'gentle' a horse is so rarely used, and I prefer the word `make' to 'break'. In the Haute Ecole much attention is given to finding the centre of gravity of a horse or adjusting one's own weight so that the horse can enjoy perfect balance. This is the opposite of rodeo when horses are tortured with a strap or rope drawn tight under the belly so that they play up and buck to get rid of it or the rider.

Like many another 'tenderfoot' I had a go at riding untamed broncos, and once when in Pleasant Valley, Alberta, had a beautiful black Montana bronco promised to me if I could ride him. He was one of a bunch of about eighty wild mustangs and had twice jumped the corral close on seven feet high. The boss had turned to me with a curse and exclaimed:

"Say boy, if you can ride that damned black devil, it's yours."

That afternoon I rode him twenty-five miles and returned the next day to claim him and thank his owner for a wonderful gift. He was the best journey horse I have ridden and was game for seventy miles a day. His most comfortable gait was a fast canter... I traded beautiful green Hudson Bay blankets with the Indians for horses and arrived in college with six of them plus a load of hay. I built a barn on the university campus and a shack near by. My ponies were my best friends and they helped me pay my way through college. I shared my shack with two other university students and contributed a page each week to The Saturday Press to buy a meal ticket at a Chinese restaurant.

In the autumn of 1910, while crossing the prairies of Canada, I recognized for the first time a desert in the making. Wide areas had been ploughed up where for centuries dwarf willows had stabilized the deep, rich, black soil. The country had been divided into townships with sections of 640 acres. In those days anybody could file on to a quarter section of 160 acres for nothing, and if he needed more, that could be acquired.

The first thing they did was to plough as much of it as they could, then sow wheat, and oats to feed the horses. One could travel miles without seeing a tree. When a farmer took up a section of land, he would mark the boundary, put up a couple of poles with strips of an old white shirt tied on the tops, so that they could be seen a mile way; sit on the plough with his six horse outfit and drive straight, keeping the markers between the heads of the leading horses -- backwards and forwards on dead level ground, breaking five acres a day. Two crops of wheat would be grown and then a crop of oats. His neighbour would be doing the same. With no sheltering trees the soil began to drift and blow away-, up to an inch of soil would be lost in a year.

Years afterwards my secretary, Finlayson, told me of a Dorset farmer who decided to go to Saskatchewan. He took up land, dug a cellar and built a frame house on top of it; ploughed up the prairie and grew wheat and oats. After twenty years he decided the country was no good for farming, for eight feet of his soil had gone and he had to climb up into his house. He could not sell so left it derelict and returned to Dorset, where he became a tenant farmer once again with tree-surrounded fields.

During my three and a half years in the North-West of Canada I encouraged the planting of trees, not only around the homesteads but as shelter belts around the farms and fields. On the Saskatchewan University farm at Sutherland and at Medicine Hat, we had nurseries and experimented with various species to get the best shelter. The Government gave trees freely to farmers.

It was while working in a lumber camp near Prince Albert, swinging the axe as a lumberjack, that my heart was torn to see the unnecessary waste of trees, and I decided that one day I would myself qualify for forestry work.


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