A Preface!

A Preface!

It wasn’t any sort of special day, the day I embarked on my journey. Like the start of many journeys, it was unremarkable and certainly unheralded. When I awoke that morning, I had no inkling of what lay ahead, that by the end of another hey-ho day, I would be changed. My main memory of the day is of having listened more deeply and more intensely than I had ever listened to anything, ever before. I listened so hard that the words I heard are still with me today, thirty-five years later.
— From DRAFT Preface, The Magical Appearance of Earthworms by Scott Poynton

So the story begins.

My journey to the forests started on May 27th, 1979 when ABC Radio's Science Show, hosted by Australian "National Living Treasure" Robyn Williams, broadcast an incredible interview between Richard St Barbe Baker and Barrie Oldfield.

St Barbe Baker, then in his 90th year, had travelled to Western Australia at Barrie's invitation to visit the State's South West and see what was happening with the magnificent Karri forests. Barrie, a keen film-maker, thought he might capture some of St Barbe's wisdom and so recorded an interview in a friend's lounge-room, sitting on a couch, with lots of tea, cake and chatter.

After the interview, Barrie was so cross at himself for not preparing questions. He'd felt the discussion had rambled, and that he'd not managed to produce anything of note. He filed the tape away in his office desk drawer for a month before finally deciding to "pop it in a can" and send it over to Robyn at the ABC in Sydney. Robyn tells the story of how he listened to the interview and immediately sent it for broadcast, so powerful were the insights. Barrie's interview has become one of the most popular broadcasts in the Science Show's 40 year history.

Far, far away from Barrie's home in Perth, a young lad had been outside playing with his dogs. He'd come in for a drink of water and found the radio on.

I entered the house and noticed that the radio was on, an unusual thing. My father listened to the radio in the car but seldom in the house, and he didn’t seem to be inside. Indeed, the house was empty. I loved science and the voice from the radio was introducing the “Science Show”. I poured a glass of water and sat at the table to better hear the words. Robyn Williams, the presenter, spoke about Richard “St Barbe” Baker, a ninety-year-old “man of the trees” he said, “the world’s most famous forester, responsible for the planting of millions of trees”, who was visiting Australia as part of his life-long global voyage to save the world’s forests.
— From DRAFT Preface, The Magical Appearance of Earthworms by Scott Poynton

At that stage of my life, I'd never heard of a "forester" but the idea instantly intrigued me. I had spent a lot of time in forests with my dogs marvelling at their beauty and here was the suggestion that I might get a job working to protect them, like St Barbe. His words transported me.

During the half hour broadcast, St Barbe took me on an incredible journey: from 1920s Kenya where he founded “Men of the Trees”, to Western Australia, to Britain, Paris Orly airport, the Sahara, New Zealand, Canada; places I had heard of but knew nothing about. The world flew around me, a young man whose grandest adventure to that point had been to live a short while across the border in rural New South Wales. St Barbe spoke of cultural genocide, the rapacious, human induced spread of the Sahara, deforestation, a commonwealth of African nations, the planting of trees, ancient ceremonies, children, solutions, urgency and grace. I travelled with him, learning that there actually was still so much yet to discover and soaking up his every word, a rich mixture of science, poetry, and art delivered with deep spirituality and breathtaking humility from one who had achieved so much in a long life fully lived. Long before the broadcast was done, indeed from the very moment I first heard his voice, I knew: I was to be a forester, like him, it was clear.
— From DRAFT Preface, The Magical Appearance of Earthworms by Scott Poynton

And so the stage was set. I abandoned my plans to become a vet and set my sights on forestry. Yet, something else from St Barbe's interview intrigued me: his description of his experiences with earthworms. St Barbe had shared the story of how when planting trees in hostile environments, like the Sahara and in the Judean Hills, he had tried "stone mulching" to give the trees a greater chance of survival.

On the fringe of the Sahara and in Israel where I started planting trees over fifty years ago, we put a stone or a couple of stones for every tree on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho in our plantations in the Judean hills. And if a goat knocked a stone off, the tree would die. The stone is there to water the tree; this is what we call stone mulching or top mulching. The stone draws down the heat and it draws up the heat from below and draws up the moisture and will protect the worm. The worm will come up and down, and enjoy a cool night under the stone in the moisture that is accumulated under the stone. And in the morning the worm goes down again. If you pick up that stone you’ll see two or three worms just underneath, all in the cool and damp.
— Richard St Barbe Baker, from Barrie Oldfield's 1979 interview on ABC's Science Show

I kept wondering, "Where did those bloody earthworms come from?" I still wonder today. In those terribly harsh conditions, how did they survive and find themselves sheltering in that cool, moist place under the rock? There seemed to be an important metaphor there. Even in the most barren of places, with care, we can help bring life. Amidst all the news of deforestation and environmental issues, this seemed an important, wise insight.

I was equally as intrigued by the goat herder. It was patently clear that we could plant as many trees as we liked but if we didn't work with people, with the communities, that our efforts would come to nothing because we wouldn't get the "goat herders" on board. So was born the complexity involved in working through wicked problems. Earthworms, life-giving stones, goat herders and planters, just some of the players in the dance to get trees back in the landscape

In the age of climate change and our troubled relationship with Nature, I am constantly reflecting on St Barbe's life's work, his eternal message of love, humility, of the need to work together, peacefully, to solve our problems. "The Magical Appearance of Earthworms" is about this.

Could more of us choose to be a humble earthworm, a life giving stone, a goat herder, to be a healer and a protector, to seek a way to bring life back to desolate places, to the desolate relationship between humans and Nature? In the end, we will all choose what we choose but the path of the earthworm, stone and goat herder lies as one option ahead of us all, though it’s only an option we might choose. My deepest hope is that more and more of us will do so though nothing is certain.
— From DRAFT Preface, The Magical Appearance of Earthworms by Scott Poynton

"The Magical Appearance of Earthworms is the story of how I have travelled my path in support of Richard St Barbe Baker's mission. On that day in 1979, I felt that St Barbe somehow passed me the baton. Now, 36 years later, I have my own experiences and lessons to share, some successes, many failures. I wonder what young person I might inspire if they know there is no need to give up, to despair, that the world needs us to keep trying, to keep striving. I want to convey a message of great, positive hope. In these somewhat challenging times, I think we need it.

 

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When I walk

When I walk

The Magical Appearance of Earthworms

The Magical Appearance of Earthworms