Once, in a life before horticulture, I spent twelve months selling second hand books from a market stall in Bristol. Eight hours a day, six days a week of sitting on a chair drinking tea and reading. It was blissful and I’d recommend it to any young person thinking of taking a gap-year.
Having so much time to read is liberating; most of us have so few hours spare for literature that we are terrified of wasting them on an imperfect book. We feel we must either read something improving, a proper book, Flaubert in French say, or one that is a guaranteed match to our tastes, the “I only read books about sexy vampires” syndrome. But when reading is all you do, you are free to waste days on books that turn out to be crap. I would read; chick lit and sci-fi, collections of feminist poetry, pamphlets about erotic female wrestlers, I would read the classics and I would read books asking “was Hitler a Satanist?”, but most importantly for the first time ever I read gardening books.
Unfortunately now that I’m in the business of knowing stuff about plants I can’t shake my market stall ways. When shopping for gardening books I still buy third-hand volumes, not glossy new high-production hardbacks, even if it means my books are completely taxonomically redundant. I’m stuck in a world where gardening books cost £2.50 not £25.00. Last week however, things changed, I was given a £50 book token, and so finally paid a guilt free visit to the horticulture section of London’s largest bookshop.
Like a drunk in a curry house I was paralysed by choice. I browsed for hours, sweating and sipping pints of Cobra. Who knew there were so many experts on back-yard chicken-farming? Who knew how common a trope the title The *Adjective* Gardener has become. It’s out of control! Waterstones will supply you with pages by; The Thrifty Gardener, The Curious Gardener, The Inquisitive Gardener, The Adventurous Gardener, The Virgin Gardener, The Weekend Gardener, The Bad-Tempered Gardener, The Common Sense Gardener, The Meditative Gardener, The Resilient Gardener, The Conscientious Gardener, The Informed Gardener, The Decadent Gardener and The Quotable Gardener.
In the end I bought Tall Trees & Small Woods: How to Grow and Tend Them by Dr William Mutch which is proving a solid introduction to practical forestry. It is full of dignified pen and ink drawings of un-glamorous things like vertical notch planting, befitting of an author who was the first president of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. I particularly admired Dr Mutch’s restraint in not titling his book The Coppicing Gardener.
The knowledge and assurance displayed within, as well as the subject matter reminded me of one of my horticultural heroes; Richard St. Barbe Baker, Late Assistant Conservator of Forests in Kenya Colony and the Southern Provinces of Nigeria, and author of the magisterial autobiography I Planted Trees. I found Baker’s book in a second hand bookstall in Camden Lock and have been enchanted by him since.
At the age of 16 Baker left the family home in Hampshire and travelled to Canada, claiming that his great-uncle had once killed a bear with just a shovel and that he fancied doing the same. After three years living as a frontiers man he decided he’d get an education and enrolled on the forestry course at Cambridge. Unfortunately the Great War broke out while he studied, and Richard was duty bound to enlist. His account of the First World War is crisp and to the point, displaying a characteristic reticence to boast of glory or to seek sympathy. At one point in I Planted Trees he writes “I went through all the spring shows of 1915, but this is not the place to talk of them”. Lucky for us! Leaving the gassing of Ypres and the horror of the Western Front out of his autobiography means more space to muse on the practical management of Kenyan pencil wood forests.
But it is not just pencil wood that will delight the silvicuturalist reader: the bamboo cloud forests of the Aberdare Range make an appearance, as do the mangrove swamps of Italian Somaliland, the ancient forest of East Germany and the eucalyptus groves of Southern California. The author is touchingly obsessed with woods. In I Planted Trees a dinner with Mussolini warrants a single sentence, chatting to Roosevelt gets two, almost dying of lockjaw contracted from a Mikingili thorn takes five sentences to describe, while near losing a leg in Ceylon takes a barely a page (delirious and unable to speak he writes a note to the doctor: “I am a forester; I need both legs” pointedly drawing a double line under “both”) encountering the Natural Regeneration of Woodland theory of Karl Gayer has its own dedicated chapter.
Though Baker died in 1982, the organization he set up, The Men of the Trees lives on as The International Tree foundation and has now been responsible for planting tens of millions of trees internationally (or 26 trillion if you believe Wikipedia). He may well have been responsible for planting the very tree that made the paper that was scribbled on by all those Bad Tempered, Virgin, and Adventurous Gardeners, and for that I hope they will join me in raising a toast “to Richard St. Barbe Baker – He planted trees.”