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The Lorax and the Patas Monkey

30 September, 2019

Last week, I was invited to give a talk about Dr. Seuss, and as I researched about his sources of inspiration, his politics, accusations of racism and his books, I came across a few articles about the possible inspiration for the Lorax. An article by the New York Times, dated July 23, 2018, written by JoAnna Klein, was most interesting. (Link below)

I’ve copy pasted or paraphrased parts from it here, along with other bits of information I gathered in my research, mixed with some of my own thoughts.

In 1970, when millions of people observed Earth Day for the first time, Dr. Seuss, was fighting to keep a suburban development project from clearing the Eucalyptus trees around his home. Thinking that there was a need for a children’s book about conservation, but trying to write something that wasn’t boring or preachy, he found that he had writer’s block. His wife suggested that they go on a holiday to help him clear his mind. So off they traveled to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, an exclusive resort where guests watched animals along Kenya’s Laikipia plateau. I”m sure you’ve guessed by now where I’m leading? It was there that “The Lorax” took shape — on the blank side of a laundry list, nearly all of its environmental message created in a single afternoon. "

As the story goes, a boy asked the elderly Once-ler how their town was ruined. The Once-ler tells of how he stripped the area of all its natural resources so he could make "thneeds" that could transform into virtually any article of clothing—much to the dismay of a moustachioed furry creature called the Lorax. The Lorax, who “speaks for the trees,” pops up from a chopped-down tree stump and angrily demands that the Once-ler stop cutting down Truffula trees to knit “thneeds.” But the Once-ler doesn’t listen and eventually is left alone in a crumbling, empty factory on a barren landscape.

The Lorax as a character faced a bit of criticism. He was found too bossy with his use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ a little too often and he was thought to be too angry a voice. “He was shortish. And oldish. And brownish. And mossy. And he spoke with a voice that was sharpish and bossy.”

However, Nathaniel Dominy, an anthropologist and evolutionary ecologist at Dartmouth college suggested that “If you see the Lorax not as some indignant steward of the environment, but instead, as a participating member of the ecosystem, then I think his anger is so much more understandable, and I think, forgivable.”

One day, Dr. Dominy happened to sit down to dinner with Prof. Donald E. Pease, an English professor much praised for his lectures and biography of Dr. Suess. Finding himself grappling with something to talk about with the famed professor, Dr. Dominy, raised the topic of “The Lorax,” suggesting that the fuzzy, moustachioed protagonist of the book resembled the Patas monkey, a fluffy, orange, real-life creature with a raspy alarm call that he had observed while working in Kenya. The monkey gets most of its nutrients from a gnarly tree called the whistling thorn acacia, in a type of interaction called commensalism, wherein one organism benefits from another, without harming it. “If Dr. Seuss would ever make a monkey,” he told Dr. Pease, “that would be the one.” Dr. Pease questioned the notion that a creative master like Dr. Seuss would ever use a real life reference, but became convinced after considering how the Lorax appeared from that chopped-down tree stump, suggesting, in a way, that the Lorax was part of it. This made the character’s use of “MY trees” more reasonable.

The conversation evolved into a scientific process and collaboration with a professor at NYU, that included feeding the Lorax’s cartoon face into sophisticated monkey face-recognition software. They fed the faces of 5 Kenyan monkeys into the computer along with the faces of the Lorax and the Foot Book creature. The software revealed that the Lorax was linked quite closely to the Patas Monkey than the Foot book creature. Whether this connection is fact or not, what we do learn from this, in Dr. Pease’s words. “we learn about important ecological concepts and environmental interactions — like how removal of a keystone species, like the Truffula tree, can lead to ecosystem collapse.”

High from his house in La Jolla, California, Dr. Seuss could look over a park which had a range of Monterey Cypress Trees. Have a look at the picture below and look at the illustration of the Truffula Trees from The Lorax. Dr. Seuss often said…“Why write about Never Never Lands that you’ve never seen- when all around -you have a Real Never Never Land that you know and understand.”

Today The Lorax, has been translated into more than a dozen languages, sold more than a million copies and adapted into a 2012 film. It was Dr. Seuss’s favourite book and one that was much discussed for its environmental resonance.

Dr. Seuss wrote ‘When Horton hears a Who’, as an allegory of America’s occupation of Japan post WWII. As Horton puts it, “ A person is a person, no matter how small.”

In Yertle the Turtle, which was Dr. Seuss strong stance against Hitler and his policy of Lebensraum, a little turtle name Mack, spoke up against what he saw and felt as unjust. "I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, But down at the bottom, we, too, should have rights.” Then all it took was one small action to bring about a difference. "That plain little turtle below in the stack, That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack, Decided he'd taken enough. And he had And that plain little lad got a little bit mad And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing He burped!And his burp shook the throne of the king!”

Helen Palmer, Dr. Seuss’ first wife once told an interviewer, “Ted doesn’t sit down and write for children. He writes to amuse himself. Luckily what amuses him also amuses them.”

At the end of The Lorax the Once-ler throws the last Truffula tree seed to the child, and says “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

As controversial as his work is considered today, and as much under debate, the truths he shared ring as loudly and strongly as ever. The smallest action can make or at least contribute towards making a difference. Something positive is always better than nothing.

Hope it resonates with you, as much as it does with me. I find this particularly poignant today, as Greta Thunberg dares all of us along with the powerful leaders of the world, to sit up and take notice and DO SOMETHING.

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