I can’t let the subject of English eccentrics pass without referring to two of the most extraordinary men I ever met, both of them slightly eccentric, but also men of such passionate conviction that they influenced millions of people around the world and transformed their disciplines with revolutionary change.
These two men were the Scottish educator A.S. Neill, who set up his own school Summerhill and wrote books about what he was doing there that met an enthusiastic audience across languages and other barriers. The second was a man I have found to be rather less known although equally amazing, Richard St. Barbe Baker, the founder of an organization called Men of the Trees, who throughout his life rode an obsession with planting trees, and saving those trees that were in danger of the woodsman’s axe or saw to such effect that he personally stimulated the planting of millions upon millions of trees in more than 100 countries, with concomitant effects on society that have been nothing but beneficial.
Both men were born in the 1880s, and became active in the early years of the twentieth century, right after the First World War, as if to say, “Surely, we can do better.” Summerhill school was founded in the 1920s as a school in which, as one recent newspaper article described it “every lesson is voluntary and where youngsters can vote to suspend all the rules.” I visited it in the Suffolk countryside in the 1960s, and found as I entered a pleasing atmosphere of chaos, with multiple cats sitting around on every piece of furniture, and the founder himself engaged in asking a small girl if she was a liar. He quickly told me the pupils don’t have to go to class if they don't want to, and they were allowed to smoke, swear and break things. If one of them stole something, they would be rewarded with a gift of something worth more than the thing they had stolen. "No one," Neill once wrote, "is wise enough or good enough to mould the character of any child." And even in the school as it exists today, led by Neill’s only daughter, they still will not admit that they encourage their pupils to “aspire” to something. “Aspire to what?” was the headmistress’s answer, when she was recently asked that question.
Tall, untidy, slightly stooped, a man to whom the superficial external values so much prized by ordinary people seemed completely irrelevant, Neill told me that in 30 years only one of his ex-pupils had committed a crime (selling black market petrol coupons). He admitted he had never produced a genius, nor to the best of his knowledge had be ever produced an anti-semite or a racist. None had gone in for politics and few for business. It isn’t that there were no rules: there were many rules, but they were decided each week at what was called the Meeting, where students and staff met to make such decisions, the vote of the smallest child counting for as much as the vote of the headmaster.
If a boy and girl approached him and asked for a bedroom together, he told them that if he allowed that the Ministry would close the school down. “I do not pose it as a moral question at all, and as far as I know we have never produced any illegitimate children at Summerhill,” he told me.
I ended my piece by commenting that Neill seemed to be one of the few people I had ever met who believed that love is everything.
St Barbe Baker was 74 when I met him in a vegetarian restaurant in London. He was living with his second wife on a farm in the South Island of New Zealand, and he was advocating that New Zealand should be transferred back from its pastoral economy into a silvicultural one. Although to most people that would seem to be a step back to the past, to him it seemed the most natural thing, the obvious measure to take if we are to save the world from destruction. In this kind of thinking he was years, perhaps generations, ahead of his time.
As a young man he had been persuaded by a minister of religion that he should emigrate to Canada to undertake work as a missionary, but on arrival in backwoods Saskatchewan he changed his mind and enrolled in the University. To pay his tuition fees he took a job in the lumbering camps in the north of the province, where he found they were clear-cutting thousands of trees in such a manner that nothing could regenerate. He decided this was wrong, and should be changed, so he went back to England, studied forestry at Cambridge university, and on graduation joined the colonial service. He was assigned to Kenya, where he found great chunks of the country had been laid bare by the slash and burn farming of the indigenous Kikuyu. He persuaded the tribesmen they might have a dance to celebrate the lost trees. He offered them a prize of a splendid necklace, and 3,000 of them showed up. He enrolled 50 of them as Men of the Trees, who were pledged each to plant 10 trees a year, and to care for trees everywhere. He boasted to me in the London café that the areas of Kikuyuland in which he had stimulated the growing back of the forests was an area that generations later was not troubled by the Mau Mau troubles of the 1950s, which were caused by, among other things, reduction of the land base.
Next he was transferred to Nigeria, where, he told me, as a forest conservation officer he fell afoul of his superiors by objecting when he saw an officer bullying an African. His superior consigned him into the interior with the remark, “Filthy spot, Baker. I hope the red flies bite you and your ankles swell.” They did more than that: he had to shipped out of the country, almost dead from the tropical diseases to which he fell prey. But nothing could deter him from his life’s mission, to save trees and to reclothe the earth with forest protection.
He founded the Men of the Trees in 1924, and it still exists, although renamed in view of greater gender sensitivities as the International Tree Foundation. Baker conducted campaigns for tree-planting all around the world, in Israel, across Africa, in Australia, in California, where he led the campaign to save the redwoods, and worked with Franklin Roosevelt on similar campaigns across the country. After taking a drive across the Sahara in 1954, he embarked on a campaign to stop the encroachment of the sand by beginning a tree-planting campaign along the Saharan periphery in Algeria.
In the restaurant where I met him --- he talked non-stop for three hours, much of it about his enthusiasm for the Ba’hai religion --- a young waitress who overheard our conversation asked him what he was doing in the Sahara. “We are trying to provide homes for up to one million people,” he said. And as we left the young woman’s eyes were shining. The Man of the Trees had made another convert.
There is a delightful video showing him instructing children on how to plant a tree. The job completed, he asked them all to rise, to crowd around the newly-planted tree, holding their hands out towards it, to allow their love for it to flow into the tree, to help it to grow.
He told them, of the 30 million hectares of forest on the earth, some 9 billion had already been removed. “If a human being loses one third of its skin, it dies. If a tree loses one-third of its bark, it dies, Likewise, if the earth loses one-third of its cover, it will die.”
That is the challenge he has kept before people wherever they may be, ever since he discovered his obsession for the trees almost a century ago.
“The object of the Men of the Trees is to develop a tree sense in every citizen of the world and to encourage all to plant, protect and love their native trees,” he wrote in one of his 34 books on the subject. “For forestry is among the oldest and most honourable of all peaceful arts of men and in its practice is unselfish and constructive work.
“We have tried to keep a balance between the purely sentimental on the one hand and the material and economic on the other, and have shown there need be no conflict between the useful and the beautiful.”
He died in 1982, at the age of 92, leaving all of us in his immeasurable debt.