Rethinking the Lorax, with facial analysis and some linguistic musing
July 31, 2018 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Theodor ‘Dr Seuss’ Geisel's environmental book, The Lorax (Wikipedia; the text of The Lorax ; preview in Google Books), he once explained, "came out of my being angry. The ecology books I'd read were dull. . . . In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might." It came to him in an afternoon, written in a burst after he suffered from writer's block. New research suggests that he was inspired by a trip to the exclusive Mount Kenya Safari Club, where he may have been inspired by the patas monkeys and whistling thorn acacia, which co-exist in commensalism.

Study: The Lorax Was a Forest Creature, Not an Eco-Cop -- Two professors find a new way to interpret the famous book by Dr. Seuss
In the book, as the landscape becomes dotted with Truffula tree stumps, the Lorax explains:

“NOW … thanks to your hacking my trees to the ground,

there’s not enough Truffula Fruit to go ’round…”

But what exactly did the Lorax mean by “my”? Did he consider himself the owner of the forest, as some critics have claimed? A Dartmouth-led study proposes a new theory that the Lorax viewed himself as a part of the Truffula forest and was speaking as the personification of nature rather than as some sort of eco-policeman. The study is published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Excerpt from the study:
Geisel was on the Laikipia plateau of Kenya when he exclaimed, “Look at that tree. They have stolen my trees”. Biographers have argued that these Seussian trees shaped the appearance of The Lorax’s silk-tufted Truffula trees, but the taxonomic identity of the tree is unknown. Looking at the book’s illustrations, a clue may lie in the barren habitat surrounding the Once-ler’s home. There stands a spindly tree — an untufted Truffula tree or early successional species — that resembles the whistling thorn acacia (Vachellia drepanolobium; syn. Acacia drepanolobium), a common tree in Laikipia. If Geisel was referring to these trees, it is likely that he also observed patas monkeys (Erythrocebus patas), which depend on A. drepanolobium for about 83% of their diet16. Acacia gum makes up about half of this consumption, in an ecological interaction that benefits patas monkeys without harming the acacia tree — a commensalism.

If this natural commensalism informs The Lorax, it challenges traditional interpretations of the Lorax as an ecopoliceman asserting his authority. If the Lorax is based on the patas monkey, he can be seen as a sustainable consumer dispossessed of his commensal partner and an equal victim of environmental degradation.
And then the article gets into the matter of perceptual face space (Fig. 3).
posted by filthy light thief (17 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
This might be because the joke is flying over my head, but I've always thought "I speak for the trees" made it pretty clear that the Lorax shares an identity with the trees? I mean, he appears out of nowhere when the Onceler chops down the first tree - he's pretty explicitly the trees given voice. I haven't dug into the citations to figure out who's calling the Lorax an eco-policeman, though.

I do enjoy the study, though - commensalism is always neat to read about!
posted by sagc at 2:03 PM on July 31, 2018 [15 favorites]

Did he consider himself the owner of the forest, as some critics have claimed?

Never in my life did I think that was the interpretation. Why would someone think that?

posted by GuyZero at 2:58 PM on July 31, 2018 [18 favorites]

The Lorax deeply affected me as a young child (as well as The Butter Battle Book) and I daresay it planted the deepest seed of my environmental/ecological thought.

There is a magnificent animated television short (1972, 25 minutes) which I watched on VHS over and over. If you want to stick your kid in front of a Seussian movie that has a deep message, you could hardly do better.

Compared to this, the 2012 film (which had ~70 marketing tie-ins to things like a fucking SUV and, literally, disposable diapers?!?) can die in a fire.
posted by panhopticon at 3:06 PM on July 31, 2018 [13 favorites]

I always thought of the Lorax as the voice of plain old common sense, not the eco police. Seriously, whoever twisted him into being some sort of eco cop trying to tell us how to use the forests?! I bet whoever it was, Trump recruited them to head something important in the EPA... sigh.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 3:11 PM on July 31, 2018 [5 favorites]

The Lorax deeply affected me as a young child (as well as The Butter Battle Book) and I daresay it planted the deepest seed of my environmental/ecological thought

Me too! And I add to that, The Wump World by Bill Peet.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 3:14 PM on July 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Did he consider himself the owner of the forest, as some critics have claimed?

Whuh? It was always clear to me - as a child, and then later as a parent reading the book to my kids - that the Lorax was never the owner of the trees, but the being that spoke for them and all the other living things in the forest that needed each other to survive; that the point of the story was to illustrate that disrupting the ecosystem in the pursuit of profit was ultimately devastating to everyone and everything, not that the fucking Lorax was the victim of property theft.

I guess there are lots of ways to overthink a plate of beans.
posted by nubs at 3:27 PM on July 31, 2018 [10 favorites]

I loved 'The Lorax' so much as a kid and I still do. It holds up. And the Lorax says it unambiguously, 'I speak for the trees'!

It kills me that we haven't really started to do anything about this, in fact it's become worse, in all the years since this was published.This is where we are now.
posted by h00py at 4:32 PM on July 31, 2018

I Lorax

And when man chop

A mighty tree

And mak it drop

I show up

And tell him "Please

put down yor ax".

I speek for trees
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 4:47 PM on July 31, 2018 [13 favorites]

I'm friendly acquaintances with all the authors of the Nature paper - there aren't many of us who work on guenons. Patas monkeys are really amazing - they're the fastest primate and have converged on a lot of dog-like traits including really inflexible shoulders, shorter fingers and toes, long limbs, etc. that let them run 40 mph! I don't know if I buy that they're the Lorax, they speak for the trees, but I'm pro-anything that introduces people to patas monkeys and their Very Serious Mustaches.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:06 PM on July 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

Why would someone think that?

My guess is somebody so deep in a particular worldview that they can only think about relationships and value through the frame of ownership.

What I don't have any idea about, is whether they were pro-Lorax and making a heroic effort at trying to bring some beliefs together, or anti-Lorax and going for some kind of gotcha argument about how environmentalists are secretly motivated by the same beliefs as them, just don't admit it or maybe realize it.
posted by traveler_ at 5:34 PM on July 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Compared to this, the 2012 film ... can die in a fire.

Plus the 2012 movie is responsible for starting the once-ler fandom.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:29 PM on July 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

fuck a thneed.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:37 PM on July 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

ChuraChura: I'm friendly acquaintances with all the authors of the Nature paper

Maybe you could ask them why they thought the book needed to be reinterpreted? ;)

Perhaps they were thinking about the time in 1988 when a small school district in California faced criticism for including the book on a reading list for second graders because some in the town claimed the book was unfair to the logging industry, and/or The Truax (PDF via, written by Terri Birkett, a member of a family-owned hardwood flooring factory, "offering a logging-friendly perspective."

Sorry to all for the framing of this - my main interest in posting this was Seuss' history and experiences (possibly) informing The Lorax, namely that he wanted to "attack what I think are evil things" and (maybe) found inspiration in the Kenyan landscape and fauna.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:58 AM on August 1, 2018

"If the forest was owned by the Lorax, you'll concede
He'd be able to stop the guy making the Thneeds."

We are the lawyers, we speak for the Lorax
We wear grey suits and we travel in packs
This chopping down of the truffula trees
Must cease & desist, in other words freeze
All communication is through us, here's a court order
We're busy counting the money the lawsuit will awarder
posted by nubs at 8:32 AM on August 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

It seems like it's a response to the "ecopoliticians?"
posted by ChuraChura at 2:32 PM on August 1, 2018

But also, James Higham works on facial differentiation in the guenons and he and Sandra have spent a lot of time staring at guenon face and probably said "oh hey, that looks like the Lorax" after spending hours staring at patas monkey faces and realized that everything checked out.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:40 PM on August 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

« Older as far as I’m aware, I’m really the only one...   |   Biological in appearance, intriguing in character... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments