The temperate rainforests of North America were once so dense, it is said, that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground. Today, of course, that same squirrel would have to navigate the vast East Coast megalopolis, the rolling farmlands of the Midwest and South, and a spaghetti bowl of state and federal highways from here to there and there to here before it could dip its tail in the big river.
Places yet remain, however, where the trees still hold sway. Oregon and Washington State still enjoy vast swaths of forest untouched and unseen by the steel diligence of modern enterprise. My little town in rural New Hampshire floats on a verdant sea of foliage that changes color in time, withers, dies and returns each spring in a bellowing of green. The town itself was zoned so that every neighborhood has its own small forest, a thought unheard of in places like Boston or Manhattan, where the land would have been plundered long ago for its real estate value. Here, it was instead decided that the trees, to quote Dr. Seuss, are what everyone needs.
Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, was in the news after the election of Donald Trump, despite having passed away more than a quarter century ago, and for good reason. The contradictions of Seuss’s canon — which oscillates between presenting the sort of virulent racism and stereotyping embraced by Trump’s base, and delivering a searing progressive critique of the military-industrial complex, authoritarianism, fascism and corporate-led environmental destruction — somehow capture the entire spectrum of the current political moment.
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Geisel last surged into the news in September, when First Lady Melania Trump excoriated a librarian’s decision to decline the Trump family’s donation of Seuss books due to racist caricatures of Africans and Asians contained in books such as If I Ran a Zoo.
At the time, the librarian, Liz Phipps Soeiro of Cambridge, Massachussetts, wrote, “Many people are unaware … that Dr. Seuss’ illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes,” drawing attention to an aspect of the children’s author that often gets underemphasized in progressive circles due to the degree of childhood nostalgia that many readers feel in relation to his works. Melania Trump responded by calling Soeiro “divisive,” setting off a predictable firestorm between Trump’s base and the librarian’s defenders.
This week, however, Seuss is back in the news for a very different reason: Anthropology professor Nathaniel Dominy, who teaches at Geisel’s alma mater, Dartmouth, believes he has found the Lorax … or, more specifically, the orange-furred monkey that inspired Geisel’s famous character.
For those unacquainted with The Lorax, a brief synopsis: An industrialist called The Once-ler discovers a gorgeous forest made of Truffula trees, which he proceeds to chop down in order to make and sell a nonsense product called a “Thneed.” The Once-ler’s brutal deforestation displaces birds, fish and forest animals to the point that the Lorax, a mystical creature who “speaks for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,” magically appears to try and stop The Once-ler’s destructive behavior.
Alas, The Once-ler’s greed cannot be sated, and the Truffula forest continues to fall. The Lorax must send all the animals away to find new homes, lest they perish in the onrushing devastation. In the end, when the last tree is finally down, the Lorax disappears “through a hole in the smog” with only “a sad, sad backward glance.”
Alone now but for his regrets, The Once-ler is left to grow old and sad in the ecological ruins of his own making, but finds one final chance for redemption in the guise of a little boy. On the book’s final page, he gives the boy the last Truffula seed and orders him to plant a forest, to “protect it from axes that hack,” in hopes that “the Lorax, and all of his friends, may come back.”
The Lorax, published in the earliest days of the environmental movement, has been celebrated for decades for its haunting ecological warning. It had long been believed that the cypress trees of California served as the basis for Geisel’s beautiful Truffula trees, but now Professor Dominy and his co-authors have proffered that Geisel was inspired to write the book in 1971 after seeing the patas monkeys of Kenya and the whistling thorn acacia trees they live in. The patas monkey does bear a striking resemblance to Geisel’s Lorax, and the book’s artwork depicts trees that closely match the whistling thorn acacia.
While many environmental activists have great affection for the Lorax, mainstream interpretations of Geisel’s book have often held the character to be something of an angry pest, a “bossy, pedantic guilt-tripper” according to Atlantic journalist Joe Fassler, interested only in hugging trees and disrupting the march of progress. Writer Emma Marris, in the journal Nature on the 40th anniversary of the book’s publication, called the Lorax a “parody of a misanthropic ecologist.”
These descriptions are hardly baseless; the Lorax is vocally pissed and makes no bones about it. So was Geisel when he wrote it. “The Lorax,” he told the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly in 1994, “came out of me being angry. In The Lorax, I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.”
Professor Dominy’s interpretation turns more than 40 years of accepted understanding of The Lorax on its ear. ‘‘Our argument,” says Dominy in an interview quoted by The Boston Globe, “is, no, if the Lorax is based on a living animal that has this tight, co-evolved relationship with a tree, then it’s better to think of the Lorax not as some indignant steward of the environment but as a participating member of the environment. And then this anger is so much more understandable.”
Indeed, we should all be so angry. The weekend newspapers were filled to bursting with stories that would make the Lorax tear off his mustache. “Lawmakers, Lobbyists and the Administration Join Forces to Overhaul the Endangered Species Act” blared The New York Times. Not to be outdone, the Washington Post ran a lead headline that read, “Trump Administration Officials Dismissed Benefits of National Monuments.”
In combination, these reports were yet another litany of ongoing environmental dissolution. Here was more deep damage done by an administration that has deliberately styled itself the sworn enemy of all living things, should those things perchance to vex the pursuit of cheap profits at the expense of silly liberal trivialities like clean air, un-poisoned water and un-plasticized oceans not bent on retaliatory murder.
Anyone who has read even half an inch of Truthout reporter Dahr Jamail’s Climate Disruption Dispatches knows all too well that the planet is on fire, the seas are becoming acid, the sky is actually falling, and the Once-lers of the world are greedily stoking the flames. One such squats in the White House, another does his soot-stained bidding at the EPA (which should now stand for Easy Profits Available) and all of them, in the Post’s words, seek to “emphasize the value of logging, ranching and energy development” to the inexorable despair of us all.
At the conclusion of The Lorax, The Once-ler is left to brood over the endless ruin of stumps and smoke he created. “And all that the Lorax left here in this mess,” he intones, “was a small pile of rocks with the one word … UNLESS.” As he contemplates the young boy to whom he gives the last Truffula seed, The Once-ler finally perceives the possibility of redemption both for himself and for the world he so thoroughly despoiled.
“But now,” he exclaims to the boy, “Now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
I have read that story to my daughter hundreds of times, and she pins me with her eyes each time we reach that line. When we explore our neighborhood forest, she collects fallen acorns and announces, “I found another Truffula seed, Daddy!” whenever she finds one. During one exploration, we came across an ancient tree with five trunks growing from the bole, and she climbed up in between them, hands pressed to the bark. “She stood there timeless,” I wrote upon return, “three feet of eternity conducting the energy passing through her, speechless, rigid in bliss. She was in the palm of a living thing, and if she didn’t know it, the tree did.”
“I am the Lorax,” she has told me more than once, and she’s right. She is the Lorax, as am I, as are you, as are we all. Unless and until we all care a whole awful lot, the Trump-lers manufactured by this sad, strange society of ours will continue to run rampant, and the Truffula trees will fall. The Lorax was not some curmudgeonly environmentalist complaining for the sake of complaining. He was fighting for his life. As are we all.
Dedicated to my daughter, and to everyone else who speaks for the trees.