Thursday, February 04, 2010

Early Years

Autobiography of Richard St. Barbe Baker

Part II

This is part II of the first chapter of the autobiography of Baha'i environmentalist Richard St. Barbe Baker (1889-1982), called "My Life, My Trees." The first part of this series is in the Badi' Blog entry for Jan 12, 2010, at:

Baker's Early Years

Chapter One: I Am Led Forth (part II)

My father could not abide sectarianism and each month held a United prayer-meeting to which he welcomed ministers of all denominations. In the atmosphere of prayer their religious differences vanished, for with their convenor they all acknowledged the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. To his hospitable home came Hindus and Buddhists, Persian Sufis, devout followers of Islam and missionaries on furlough.

In the high summer of 1894 I had an unforgettable experience which at the early age of five altered my outlook on life and I believe more than anything influenced the way by which I have come.

As I have already explained, my earliest and happiest memories are bound up with trees. One of the earliest is that of the pine forest which came up close to the house. I often sat in the sun there and in the tree tops I seemed to hear the sound of waves breaking on the sea-shore. Those pines spoke to me of distant lands and gave me my first desire to travel and see the trees of other countries. At times I would imagine that these tall pines were talking to each other as they shook or nodded their heads at the whim of the winds. I did not know then that I would be at school with James Elroy Flecker who once wrote:

"For pines are gossip pines the wide world through."

My old nurse, Perrin, was a real native of Hampshire. As a girl she used to glean in the fields and get sufficient wheat, she told me, to keep them in bread for the year. She was married to a forester in charge of woodlands belonging to Queen's College, Oxford. These woodlands adjoined my father's estate, and from my earliest days my nurse took me for walks there. I loved the Perrin cottage; it was on a knoll on the fringe of the woods and from it I could peer into the dark woods of "dreamy gloomy friendly trees". That pine forest was full of romance and boyish adventure for me.

A stone's throw from the cottage was a large brick oven, where the weekly batch of bread was baked. I often watched spellbound to see the hot, sweet-smelling loaves removed from the oven. To me Perrin was a sort of High Priestess officiating at her altar and the scent of the burning gorse seemed like incense to me. When I was small it was the huge sandpit that provided the greatest attraction for me. It was in full sight of the oven and I usually played in it on baking days. It was there that I made my first attempt at treescaping. I collected twigs of pines broken off by squirrels or the wind and stuck them into mounds of sand. I planted an avenue leading up to a sand-castle, complete with drawbridge and moat. My early treescaping efforts were influenced to some extent by the attractive coloured slides shown by my father.

The surrounding woods were extensive and in those days I never penetrated very far, nor would Perrin take me into the forest as a rule. To a small boy their depths were mysterious and rather awe-inspiring. One day, I found I had exhausted my ideas of treescaping in the sandpit and so, greatly daring, asked if I might be allowed to go for a walk in the wood. Perrin said the woods were full of adders at this time of the year and no safe place for the likes of a small boy. But I coaxed her to let me go and reluctantly she allowed me to set out on what seemed to me a wonderful expedition. No explorer of space probing the secrets of other planets could have felt more exultation than I did at that moment.

As I set out on that greatest of all forest adventures, at first I kept to a path which wound its way down into the valley; but soon I found myself in a dense part of the forest where the trees were taller and the path became lost in bracken beneath the pines. Soon I was completely isolated in the luxuriant, tangled growth of ferns which were well above my head. In my infant mind I seemed to have entered the fairyland of my dreams. I wandered on as in a dream, all sense of time and space lost. As I continued this mysterious journey, looking up every now and then I could see shafts of light where the sunshine lit up the morning mists and made subtle shadows on the huge bracken fronds which provided a continuous canopy of bright green over me. Their pungent scent was a delight to me. Although I could see only a few yards ahead, I had no sense of being shut in. The sensation was exhilarating. I began to walk faster, buoyed up with an almost ethereal feeling of well-being, as if I had been detached from earth. I became intoxicated with the beauty around me, immersed in the joyousness and exultation of feeling part of it all.

Soon the bracken became shorter, and before long it was left behind as a clearing opened where the dry pine needles covered the floor of the forest with a soft brown carpet. Rays of light pierced the canopy of the forest, were reflected in the ground mists and appeared as glorious shafts interlaced with the tall stems of the trees; bright and dark threads woven into a design. I had entered the temple of the woods. I sank to the ground in a state of ecstasy; everything was intensely vivid -- the call of a distant cuckoo seemed just by me. I was alone and yet encompassed by all the living creatures I loved so dearly.

As I lay back a dead twig snapped, like the crack of a whip, the birds warbling sounded like the notes of a cathedral organ. The overpowering beauty of it all entered my very being. At that moment my heart brimmed over with a sense of unspeakable thankfulness which has followed me through the years since that woodland re-birth. My gratitude for this cosmic experience can be perhaps best expressed in the Scots' metrical version of the Twenty-third Psalm:


Goodness and Mercy all my life, Shall surely follow me:

And in God's house for evermore, My dwelling-place shall be.


I was lost in the depths of the forest, but at that moment this did not dawn upon me. I was conscious of a feeling of bliss only once repeated in my childhood.
 The second experience was when my father, in a lantern lecture on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, threw on the screen a picture of Beulah Land. With a hundred and fifty others I sang the hymn:


O! Beulah land,
 Sweet Beulah land,
 As on the highest mount I stand
 And gaze away across the sea
 Where mansions are prepared for me,
 I view the shining-glory shore
 My heaven, my home for evermore.


In the wood among the pines, it seemed that for one brief moment I had tasted immortality, and in a few seconds had lived an eternity. This experience may last for ever.

Just beyond the tall pines was another trail where I turned to the left. In a few minutes I was back with Perrin and the commonplace things of daily life -- the washing and the baking. But how everything in this short interval had changed; even the clothes hanging out to dry on the line tied between two pines seemed like gay flags hung out for a coronation. I watched red-faced old Perrin taking out the most wonderful loaves from the brick oven. Close to her side, I walked home to the midday meal as if treading on air. I no longer minded the big black dog that used to bark so furiously at us. Even Rasey, the cross old gardener, looked like a favourite uncle to me. I seemed to sense the affection of my parents as never before. I was in love with life; I was indeed born again, although I could not have explained what had happened to me then.

The next day I went back to the woods. They now held a new and strange fascination for me. Perrin gave her consent more readily but added her usual caution, "Keep out of harm's way." I used to wonder why it was that Perrin never seemed to want to go into the woods and never, never encouraged me to venture very far. With her it was always those adders, or the 'obidyois and the little folk'.

It was a bright sunny day and this time I kept to the woodland path which brought me out to some younger plantations. I tried to find the place where I had been the day before, but, though I must have been very close, it evaded me, nor did I again experience the rapture of the previous day.

After a while I used to explore different parts of the woods. I heft the pines and ventured into a beech wood. On the fringe of the beeches I could get a clear view of Winchester, twelve miles away. On good days I could see St. Catherine's Hill, where we oftentimes went for picnics near a clump of beeches.

There was a litle maze cut in the ground and I and my brother Scott used to race each other to the middle, which took about eight minutes, then out again. We were told that it had been cut by a boy at Winchester School who had been kept back at the end of term as a punishment. It was said that he had cut this huge maze with his penknife, then died of a broken heart singing Dulce domum.

That story used to make me feel sad and unhappy; I entered into his distress at being prevented from returning home for the holidays. But when I was feeling unhappy, or if things had gone wrong for me during the day, I would leave the house, run down the little lane, cross the meadow and visit a particular beech tree in the wood. That beech with smooth bark was a Mother Confessor to my Madonna of the Woods.

Standing by the friendly beech, I knew in my heart that my troubles and my grief, as well as all that pleased me, were but for a passing moment. I would imagine that I had roots digging down deep into Mother Earth and that all above I was sprouting branches. I would hold that in my thoughts for a few moments and then come back with the strength of the tree and a radiant heart, knowing that that was all that really mattered.

John Masefield's inspired Terra Incognita in Lollington Downs and Other Poems, 1917, expresses my feeling:


Here in the self is all that man can know
Of Beauty, all the wonder, all the power,
All the unearthly colour, all the glow,
Here in the self which withers like a flower;
Here in the self which fades as hours pass,
And droops and dies and rots and is forgotten
Sooner, by ages, than the mirroring glass
In which it sees its glory still unrotten ...
Beauty herself, the universal mind,
Eternal April wandering alone;
The God, the Holy Ghost, the atoning Lord,
Here in the flesh, the never yet explored.


From that moment life became exciting and I entered with zest into the Sunday services and helped my father at the week-night meetings. The Mission Hall on Beacon Hill opened its doors to the workless in the dark days of unemployment and became a shining spiritual beacon. Coffee suppers were served and illustrated talks on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress listened to with rapt attention. By the age of twelve I was sometimes called upon to deputize for my father. In time, I and my brother, Scott, used to walk the five miles to Curdridge Church for the morning service and some Sundays to Bitterne, two miles in another direction, for the evening service. On my return after supper, my father would ask me to read Spurgeon's Sermons to him. Having given out all day he liked to hear a sermon from The Christian Herald or perhaps an article on prophecy from The English Churchman.

Regularly once a month the Reverend Melville Churchill, cousin of Sir Winston, and erudite contributor to The English Churchman under the name of 'M.A. Cantab', used to walk the eight miles from his home in Bishops Waltham to visit us. He was in sympathy with my father's evangelical work and he too had built a Mission Hall. He had a weakness for the perfectly made moka coffee my father had learned to make during the winters he had spent as a child in France. The books of Daniel and Revelation provided these earnest students of prophecy with dates which seemed to confirm past happenings and led them to look for future fulfilment. I was fascinated by their exciting conclusions when substituting a year for a day.

Towards the end of the Boer War when Mr. Churchill arrived for his monthly discussion, my father greeted him with,

"That young cousin of yours in South Africa is a bit of a harum scarum, isn't he?"

"You might think so, John, but Winston keeps his parents with his war stories in The Daily Telegraph. Mark my word, John, one day he will be Prime Minister of England."

Many were the famous preachers who visited my father to preach in the Mission Hall. I always remember General Booth, the Founder of the Salvation Army, discussing the progress of the soul with my father one Sunday evening after supper. The General maintained that backsliding would be forgiven twice but never a third time. To illustrate his point he knelt by a chair and, holding up his thumb and first two fingers said, "Mr. Baker, here's the soul," while I watched with intense interest, taking for granted the soul was there. He placed his thumb and fingers on the chair and brought them across to somewhere near the middle and suddenly drew them back.

"There, Mr. Baker," he said, "that's once." Again he advanced the imaginary soul to somewhere near the edge of the chair, then withdrew it, looking fiercely at my father.

"That, Mr. Baker, is the second time."

The third time he passed his fingers and thumb to the edge of the chair and brought them down to the floor with a thump. I was so hypnotized by the General and in sympathy with the poor soul I too fell flat on my face on the floor. The General continued to lay down the law, while my father pleaded with him that God was able to forgive until seventy times seven. But the General would have none of this -- he had his own rules for salvation.

It was in this atmosphere that I was brought up to wait on the guests and run errands for my father. As the eldest of a family of five I became responsible at an early age.

My first school was in the neighbouring village of Bitterne which I walked to, making a short cut through an adjoining property, until I was seven, when I had my first bicycle -- a heavy frame affair with cushion tyres. During the holidays I went for long rides throughout the New Forest and our part of the county.

One of our neighbours kept bees and one day I watched him manipulate a hive. When he took out a bar-frame covered with bees I asked him to let me hold it. I was thrilled with the sight and when I went home I asked my father if he would give me a hive. After some days, when he found that my heart was set on keeping bees, he suggested that I might exchange some of my apple trees that I had myself grafted for a stock.

This was when I was twelve. By the time I was sixteen I had become a proficient bee-master, with sixteen hives, the best of which in a single season yielded me two hundred and forty pounds of honey. I built up my apiary with driven bees which I rescued from the cottagers' sulphur pits. My modern bar-framed hives I had made in my own workshop after the model of the first one I had bought.

I am always grateful to my parents for allowing me to have my own garden at an early age and build a little house of my own and later a revolving summer house for my mother. It seemed natural for me to do these things and I would have felt frustrated if prevented. My father believed that whatever a man's profession he should still be able to keep himself and his family by manual labour. I have proved for myself the soundness of this theory, having worked my way through three universities, and been given an honorary degree at the first forestry school in the U.S.A. for my contribution in creating employment on the land for six million young men. I have always found it a distinct advantage to be able to show someone how to do a job, instead of issuing orders on paper.

There is another aspect of life on the land; while working in forest or garden a man has time for meditation and indeed his very act is devotion. He becomes in tune with the Infinite. The miracle of growth and the seasons' changes induce a sense of wonderment and call forth worship from his inner being and in this sense WORK becomes WORSHIP.

Although my father had had a tutor he decided that if at all possible I should go to a Public School and he was concerned that it should be one with Evangelical tendencies. No doubt he discussed this with the Rev. Melville Churchill; so in 1902, when I was thirteen, I was sent to Dean Close School, Cheltenham. The Headmaster was a German Jew by the name of Flecker, who had married a Russian Jewess. Both were clever. Their eldest son, James Elroy, became a poet and wrote Hassan.

My dear mother came to my first Speech Day and seemed to be spending a lot of time with Mrs. Flecker. On the first night of the holidays after she had heard me say my prayers, she said:

"My dear boy, I do hope you have nothing to do with Elroy Flecker -- his mother was unburdening her heart to me about the trouble he has been to her and his dear father." Elroy had already gone up to Oxford but he brought cricket teams to play the school. After my mother's warning I thought I would investigate for myself and become friendly with him, although he was rather a recluse.

While I was at school at Cheltenham I was fortunate enough to get to know the Elwes family at Colesbourne, about six miles away in the Cotswolds. It was a wooded estate of about seven thousand acres and there I would often spend my half-term or good conduct holidays. The owner of these extensive woodlands was writing a book on Trees of Great Britain and Ireland, assisted by Professor Henry, the Cambridge botanist, who had spent much time collecting rare species in China. Henry too would sometimes stay at Colesbourne and I would be allowed to accompany them on their forestry and botanical expeditions.

On one of these Henry pointed out to Elwes rather a special variety of elm. He was not at all dogmatic but only tentatively put this suggestion forward. "I don't agree with you," said Elwes, whereupon Henry attempted to point out the very slight botanical variation and handed his pocket magnifying lens to Elwes so that he could better examine the flower of the tree for himself.

"I don't agree with you, Henry," repeated Elwes. "Now if you would only listen to me," and he gave his own opinion at some length. Naturally Henry listened but said no more. The following day I was walking alone with Elwes. As we came to the elm tree discussed on the previous day, Elwes took up a stance, undid his coat, hooked his thumbs in his waistcoat, faced the elm and addressed me in rather a fierce tone of voice:

"Baker, this elm is not what you think it is. I have made a discovery: far from being a common English elm, Ulmus campestris, this is likely to be related to the Huntingdon elm, and if you are not convinced that I am right I would ask you to examine the flower, when you will discover for yourself that my opinion is correct."

Had Elwes forgotten that I had listened to the argument the day before or was it his way of instructing me on the identification of forest trees? Years afterwards on my return from Africa, it was my good fortune to stay at Colesbourne with his son Colonel Elwes and become more intimate with the woodlands and the family. Many were the days I devoted to forestry there.


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