Legends Series:    Barrie Oldfield - Saving Wilderness, One Acre at a time

Legends Series: Barrie Oldfield - Saving Wilderness, One Acre at a time

I’ve been lucky to have had a number of people in my life who have inspired me. They are my heroes, my “Legends”. I want to share a little bit about these heroes in this “Legends Series”. “Why on Earth are you interested in meeting me?” Barrie Oldfield wondered as we sat opposite each other in the restaurant of a Perth hotel. “I’m just an old bloke who has planted a few trees.”

“Why indeed!” I thought to myself, “where to start?”

It was October 2013, and I’d travelled to Perth, Western Australia just to meet Barrie. A long way to go to meet an old bloke who reckons his life’s work amounts to the planting of a few trees. The reality of course is quite different; Barrie Oldfield has done much more than that. Few know but it was Barrie’s quick thinking that led to an interview with Richard St Barbe Baker (himself a Legend) that aired on Australia’s Radio National “Science Show” in May 1979. The broadcast captured the imagination of so many people and catalysed a massive uptake of tree planting and land stewardship across the country.

It also catalysed a complete change in the course of my life and I’d travelled to Perth to thank him for that gift.

It was only a few years earlier that I’d learned of Barrie. ABC’s Robyn Williams (another Legend) aired the St Barbe Baker interview on the Science Show and I’d always thought that it had been Robyn who had conducted it. He had introduced it so beautifully and powerfully that it had never occurred to me that it wasn’t Robyn speaking with St Barbe. About five years ago I was listening to a Science Show podcast and Robyn aired something “from the archive” dating back to 1973 and I thought, “the archive?” If they had material from 1973, perhaps they would have the St Barbe interview from 1979? I wrote to Robyn to inquire, telling him that it had been the broadcast in 1979 that had changed the course of my life, leading me to become a forester. He wrote a beautiful response, noting that they’d have to be much more careful about what they broadcast in future! He said that they did indeed have the broadcast and that they had often re-aired it; it had been one of the most popular episodes in the Science Show’s long and prestigious history. Robyn gave me the email of a colleague who could send me the audio file. I wrote to him and wonderfully, 33 years after first hearing it, I now had “the broadcast” on my computer.

It took me almost a month to pluck up the courage to listen to it. Had I embellished the story over the years? To be fair, I’d only ever heard it once, when I was 15. Perhaps I’d read more into it than was justified and it was just some old guy rambling on about trees? I finally found the right moment to listen again when on a 5-hour train journey from Milan back to Geneva. It was only then, amid the noise, bustle and anonymity of the journey, that I felt able to open the file and listen.

Magic filled my soul as I sat transfixed, just as I had been 33 years earlier. It was exactly as I’d remembered - the music, the poetry, the stories, the science, the passion for trees holding my total attention, oblivious to anything around me as we rumbled along. At the end of the broadcast, I sat back, closed my computer quietly and shut my eyes. “What magic” I dreamed but then it hit me, “but who is this Barrie Oldfield bloke?” It hadn’t been Robyn at all who had conducted the interview and of course he’d said that right up front, in the first seconds. I’d missed it 33 years ago but not this time and Barrie’s voice was so different to Robyn’s that it was very apparent that all of these years I had missed the chance to learn more about Barrie Oldfield. I promised myself that I would change that.

I returned to my office the next day and started searching for Barrie. I found a Barrie Oldfield in Western Australia, a filmmaker. “Could be him,” I thought. Recognising my poor Google skills, I asked Sonia, my PA, to dig further. She hit the jackpot pretty quickly by finding “Barrie Oldfield: A man of the trees”, a website developed by Barrie’s friends to recognise his extraordinary contribution. “How old must he be?” I wondered. I needed to find out. Sonia did some more digging and soon came back with news that she had been in contact with Barrie, that he was over 80 but still alive and kicking, living where he had lived for 50 years near Perth. “Incredible” I said. “I’m going to meet him.”

And so plans were made and delays suffered but Barrie had agreed that we could meet that October evening in Perth and that we could then spend a few days together talking trees. I had a terrific time meeting Barrie and his wife Sallie, learning of their adventure 50 years previously when they had driven from the UK, across the Middle East through countries that don’t even exist now, onto India, where their car was shipped to Singapore and then finally on to Perth where they have lived ever since, growing a family and being very active in their local community. We visited the Men of the Trees WA Branch and met with some great people there. Barrie had founded MOTT WA in 1979, right after meeting St Barbe and was its President for 17 action packed years. St Barbe had established the Men of the Trees in Kenya back in 1922 and Barrie had invited him to WA to see the magnificent Karri forests and to add his voice to efforts to protect them. MOTT WA estimate that they’ve planted over 13 millions trees in various land reclamation projects since Barrie got started in 1979, engaging with over 2,000 members and volunteers who collectively grow and plant more than half a million trees in a season. MOTT WA dedicate their greatest efforts to improving biodiversity and combating salinity & soil erosion by planting native tress and understorey. In February this year, MOTT WA were recognised by the Guinness Book of Records for the “Most trees planted simultaneously” having planted 100,450 trees on July 25th, 2014. MOTT WA also established and now manages Perth City Farm, a former industrial site that rehabilitated, has now become an icon for environmental sustainability and community engagement.

Scott & Barrie St Barbe Grove Best
Scott & Barrie St Barbe Grove Best

Barrie and I were photographed in St Barbe Grove, MOTT WA’s magnificent nursery centre, amongst the beautiful oak trees. It’s a photo I hold very dear.

Barrie subsequently shared with me the story of how the interview came about.

“Looking back on that 1979 Science Show interview – I can't forget the fact that I very nearly did not send it in to Robyn Williams.  The interview had taken place seated next to St Barbe on a settee in a lounge room with other people present.  Though I had done many interviews in the past there was a degree of self consciousness here, particularly when others in the room were talking.  At one point St Barbe suspended the interview and asked them to keep quiet!  I came back to the studio with nearly an hour in the can, embarrassed by my fumbled and unrehearsed questions.  I put the tape away and did not listen to it again for a month.  Only then did I think it might contain something worthwhile for the Science Show despite my inept performance.  Robyn fortunately saw it differently, used his editorial scissors to great effect, and produced the program you heard.  As you know, music has been a major component in my life.  When the program went to air with the Fantasia on a theme of Tallis behind St Barbe's voice I was transported to that spirit realm where all things are possible”

One of the great things we did as we drove together was to pass a small patch of unreserved forest in Lesmurdie, the town where Barrie and Sallie live. Right next to the local supermarket car park, opposite a primary school and often used as a dumping ground by the local residents, this small, less than one acre, unloved “patch of wilderness” as Barrie calls it, had been one of Barrie’s many “projects” for a number of years. He was sad that so much of the natural forest in the area had been cleared for housing and agricultural development and he’d made it his task to get this tiny patch protected. He chose to show just how important and valuable it was by photographing, year in, year out, across all seasons, the wildflowers he found there.

As Barrie says on his blog:

“One way to save an acre of wilderness from dying by neglect is to catch on camera the often fleeting, often tiny, wild flowers that live there. Then show the pictures to everyone you know!”

Grevillea wilsonii Resized
Grevillea wilsonii Resized
Gompholobium knightianum
Gompholobium knightianum
Lechenaultia biloba
Lechenaultia biloba

By the time I’d met Barrie, he’d found and photographed 87 – yes, 87!! - different species of wildflower in this tiny patch of forest, highlighting for us all the wonder and diversity in even a patch of forest that so many considered a dumping ground. Barrie produced a beautiful book to showcase their beauty and to promote the protection of the forest and as I left WA, he kindly gave me a copy. Eight months later, on June 20th, 2014, the local Council recognised the forest as Willoughby Park, reserving it, establishing a resting place for visitors, removing the rubbish and giving it the protection that Barrie and the Friends community he had inspired had long pursued. Barrie reflected on this marvellous outcome:

“…if we cannot see the transient beauty, the sacred qualities in a tiny piece of nature how can we ever expect to save the greater forests of the world? Perhaps we should all try to have a tiny sanctuary like this, close to home, where we can enter quietly and breathe the peace of Nature for a while.”

In the introduction to Barrie’s beautiful book “Wildflowers from a Lesmurdie Reserve”, Barrie concluded with this poignant reminder of how important forests are to the world:

Sadly for most of the past century we have cleared away our trees generally to open up land for agriculture, but often to build new roads, great cities, or for safety should there be a wildfire. We need to breathe as well as eat. And these fragments of forest can remind us how it used to be. The Earth needs its trees, and sacrificing them needlessly without seeing to their replacement will ultimately lead to a sick world. As trees decline so planet Earth becomes incapable of supporting its increasing burden of humanity.

In the same text, Barrie explained why the forest has always been his garden.

Ever since the age of four, trees and their natural under storey have been my favourite places. That realisation came about one fine day in spring in our garden near Oxford. My play was interrupted when a robin paused from its scavenging in the undergrowth and fixed me with its eye. I squatted down and gazed at it intently. Together we conversed silently. A window into eternity opened up. I was embraced in a realm of utter bliss. It was a sublime transcendence – difficult to explain except to those who have also had this experience. Though it happened later in life on at least two other occasions I will never forget that first moment of revelation. It has sustained my belief in a system of being which transcends this temporal world, where time is both a prison and an illusion. Eternity is the hidden reality beyond.

Barrie Oldfield is one of my Legends because like his moment with the robin, hearing his interview with Richard St Barbe Baker was one of my own personal moments of sublime transcendence, a window into eternity. We don’t know how many others found similar moments because of the interview but we do know it led to massive interest across Australia. Robyn Williams described the reaction thus:

“Recklessly, I decided to broadcast the lot, on national radio. The founder of the Men of the Trees (an international organisation begun in 1922 for the planting and protection of trees) was heard that weekend throughout Australia. On the Monday, we returned to our ABC offices to cope with the aftermath. Hundreds upon hundreds of listeners wanted to hear him again, to get a cassette of what he said, to join Men of the Trees. A cassette was released, and sales went berserk.”

And we don’t know how many people have been inspired by Barrie and his work with MOTT WA, his efforts to support the founding of Willoughby Park, his many other movies about land and forest care and his wonderful, humble generosity of spirit.

I do know that Barrie Oldfield has been an inspiration to me and having finally met Barrie in October 2013, I have been enlivened in my work because I know that Barrie is always there with me, supporting me, urging me to keep going. I call him from time to time to check in and to learn about what he’s up to, he’s still very active in the Western Australia conservation movement. Establishing MOTT WA and supporting the creation of Willoughby Park, saving wilderness, one acre at a time, are just a selection of the many things that Barrie has done for his local community and the broader Australian and global conservation community. His gift of humble support goes beyond forests too, and his life-long love of music has seen him recently give a large proportion of his life’s savings to support the learning of music by young people in Australia and the UK.

I’m going back to Australia in July and will be visiting Barrie and Sallie again. I’m very much looking forward to it.

So, thank you Barrie Oldfield for all that you have given me and for all that you’ve done for the planet. You very much deserve the title “Legend” for the humble inspiration you have offered to countless people and for the trees that now grow thanks to your work.

To listen to Barrie's interview with Richard St Barbe Baker, broadcast by Robyn Williams on May 27, 1979 on ABC's Science Show, click here.

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