At the beginning of the 1970s, Theodore Seuss Geisel, finding himself increasingly troubled by the rapid and careless commercial development of the land around the then still idyllic La Jolla, California where he and his wife made their home, decided to do something about it. After giving the matter some thought, he determined that the best thing he could do was the thing he did best: write a book for children about the importance of conservation. The problem was how to write it in a way that was not boring or preachy.
For Seuss, the author of so many successful books, noted for their clever and playful verses and images, this was not a normal difficulty; however the more he thought about it, the more stuck he seemed to become. It was only after some time, while he and his wife were on a journey through Kenya, recounts Professor Donald E. Pease, author of the biography Theodor Geisel; A Portrait of the Man Who Became Dr. Seuss, that Seuss suddenly found the words he had been seeking for his new book. In ninety minutes, he is reported to have written the entire text of what would eventually become one of the most beloved, important, and motivating books on the subject of environmental conservation: The Lorax.
Published in 1971, The Lorax did not find immediate success. It was originally thought by the public as being exactly what Seuss didn’t want it to be – too serious, too preachy. Fortunately, its publication came about just shortly after President Richard M. Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency (to my Republican friends, let me repeat that – Richard Nixon oversaw the creation of the EPA; to my Democratic friends, again, Richard Nixon oversaw the creation of the EPA). The Clean Air Act of 1963 had also just been significantly expanded, and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was to be similarly enlarged the following year to become the Clean Water Act of 1972. Suffice it to note, it was a time when many in the society were becoming increasingly aware that the natural wealth of the nation was not infinite, that it needed to be conserved, and when used, used more judiciously.
The story is simple: the oblivious, self-centered Once-ler moves into a forest of beautiful, silky Truffula Trees, discovers that they can be made into a bizarre and wholly unnecessary garment called a thneed, builds a thneed factory and sets to denuding the forest for raw material when he is called to task for his actions by the Lorax. Alas, the Once-ler does not heed the warning of the Lorax, lays waste to the entire Truffula-centered ecosystem, and ends up alone in the wasteland he created, condemned to live with the understanding, acquired too late, that his rapacious actions had the power to destroy the beauty he originally found there. But then if you’re reading this, you likely already know the story – by heart quite likely. So why am I writing about this book?
We all have stories in our lives whose words are so deeply engraved upon our hearts that in our darkest moments they suddenly seem to glow with the fire of a thousand suns, giving us the strength, no matter how beaten down we may feel, to get back up on our feet and carry on with what we need to do. For some, these stories are found in the Bible, the Qu’ran, or another religious text; for others they might have been part of a beloved novel or the lyrics of a song. For me, some of the most deeply engraved words of all came from The Lorax.
“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. / I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” said the Lorax from atop a stump to the Truffula-destroying Once-ler. Whenever I have doubted the importance of my writing, whenever I have felt that no matter how many frogs I ferry safely across highways in order that more of them might live to reproduce, or how many people I try to convince not to kill the spiders in their homes or not to rake up all the fallen leaves from their gardens, that it’s all for nothing – not enough to make a difference – the words of the Lorax eventually find their way into my consciousness. “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”
However in my most recent hour of darkness, one of the worst I have ever yet known and one I suspect I shared with many of my readers, it was a different passage from The Lorax that finally brought me back to my feet and gave me the strength to go on. They are words spoken by the now repentant Once-ler, spoken in explanation of the last message conveyed by the Lorax as he lifted himself from the destroyed Truffula forest: “UNLESS.”
Donald Trump wasn’t elected to the presidency of the United States because enough people cared deeply about what he or Hillary Clinton said or did; he was elected because too few people – including myself – had cared about the civic health of the nation, and hadn’t cared about it for a long, long time. Now, the world is faced with the results of that failure to care. For those of us interested in the study of the nature, that lack of caring now presents us with the previously unimaginable possibility of much of the natural world we love being sold off, dug up, cut down, siphoned away, or fracked apart for the profit of international faceless corporations, all with the approval of such Trump administration officials as Secretary of the Interior Sarah Palin.
I was considering ceasing publication of The Well-read Naturalist because I thought in light of this globally catastrophic decision, made by the 50.9% of the eligible American voters who bothered to complete a ballot, writing about natural history books just seemed pointless. Even before the next sun rose, there were already reports of women being assaulted on public streets by men praising Trump as they did so, swastikas were seen spray-pained on walls and windows, and Muslims and Mexicans throughout the land who had been told very clearly by the victorious candidate that they would be banned or summarily deported from the country – in many cases the country in which they had been born – looked at their families with a fear I can only pray I never experience, who was going to care about a new field guide to plants or biography of a long-since-deceased naturalist? And with long-established environmental protections soon to be eliminated, entire forests, entire species would almost immediately be at risk of annihilation for the “biggering” of some crony’s company bottom line; what did it matter if a few less frogs made it across a highway?
That was when the meaning of “UNLESS” blazingly appeared. Those who would rape and pillage the planet for their own enrichment need those of us who might care not to. They need us to give up; to feel so defeated that we no longer pose any hindrance to their plans. They need us not to remember the lesson Seuss taught and continues to teach us all through The Lorax; to not remember the meaning behind the last word left by the Lifted Lorax himself, “UNLESS:”
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
I care, a whole awful lot – and I will not be silent – and I will not stop speaking for the trees.
Title: The Lorax
Author: Dr. Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel)
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 72 pp.
Published: August 1971