Sunday, December 12, 2010


For blind imitation of the past will stunt the mind. But once every soul inquireth into truth, society will be freed from the darkness of continually repeating the past.
--The Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 285

Last night began the Feast of Masá'il (Questions) in the Bahá’í Faith. Keepers of this tradition mark 19 months of 19 days each in the Badí Calendar; each month takes it name from a Divine attribute. In keeping with the notion of Questioning, we recall a great Bahá’í activist who questioned modern agricultural practices, fighting his whole life on behalf of the world’s forests: Dr. Richard St. Barbe Baker.
“Saint Barbe,” as people called him, came, fittingly enough, from a family of farmers and evangelists. Born in 1889 in Hampshire, England, he spent a boyhood of muddy boots and grubby hands, roaming the local forests and working in his family’s garden. His father wanted him to pursue the ministry, but Richard preferred botany and forestry. Traveling to the frontier of Western Canada in 1910, he witnessed the degradation of Saskatchewan soil resulting from the clearing of native scrub trees. Thus, after fighting in World War I--wounded  three times--Richard returned to forestry studies at Cambridge.
Richard then traveled to North Africa, where he documented soil damage tracing all the way back to activities of the ancient Romans and early Arab settlers. He became convinced that deforestation was leading to the enlargement of the Sahara Desert. In Kenya, he worked with the local Kikuyu people to found the first chapter of Watu wa Miti (“Men of the Trees”), creating nurseries to plant native trees. Today we know Watu wa Miti as the International Tree Foundation.
Saint Barbe did become an evangelist, of a sort: In his 40s, he travelled the world to persuade governments of the urgency of protecting tree cover. In his book Land of Tane he laid out his Questions of the ways of modern industrial agriculture blindly imitated soil-destroying methods of the past:
Man has lost his way in the jungle of chemistry and engineering and will have to retrace his steps, however painful this may be. He will have to discover where he went wrong and make his peace with nature. In so doing, perhaps he may be able to recapture the rhythm of life and the love of the simple things of life, which will be an ever-unfolding joy to him.
Saint Barbe’s campaign led to the establishment of the first redwood reserves in the Western US. He wrote over thirty books spreading a message a generation ahead of its time. (As a voice crying out from the desert--in this case, the Sahara--Saint Barbe reminds me of another religious figure who brought a message of Prescience: St. John the Baptist.) Even before he began his lifelong quest to save the world’s forests, Saint Barbe embraced the Bahá’í Faith. Still, many of his friends, including protégé Edward Goldsmith, belief that Barbe’s ardent reverence for the spirits of the trees make him an Animist as well.  
If you can, on the beginning of this Feast of Masá'il, remember those whose Questions allow us to wake from our slumber--the visionaries ahead of their time, bringing a message challenging convention. The paths of Justice and Wisdom, on which such evangelists carry us all, begin with the same stepping stone: a stone whose name is Masá'il.
May we see the gates of Masá'il, and perhaps make a home there.

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