Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, one of the most popular children's authors of all time, was reportedly struggling with writer's block in 1970 as he tried to develop a book about environmental conservation. In hopes of sparking his imagination, he and his wife traveled to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, a resort where guests could observe wildlife on Kenya's Laikipia Plateau.
That trip resulted in the 1971 book "The Lorax," a now world-famous fable that Geisel later described as his personal favorite of all his books. It tells the tale of the Once-ler — who cuts down Truffula trees to create garments known as Thneeds — and the titular Lorax, who "speaks for the trees" and confronts the Once-ler about his environmental destruction.
Historical records show Geisel wrote about 90 percent of "The Lorax" while visiting the Mount Kenya Safari Club in 1970, according to researchers from Dartmouth College and New York University. And as those researchers reported in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution in 2018, this setting not only helped Geisel break free from writer's block, but might have also helped inspire an iconic Seussian character as well as some of his whimsical surroundings.
In the book, as the Once-ler reduces the Truffula forest to a landscape of stumps, the Lorax laments, "NOW ... thanks to your hacking my trees to the ground / there's not enough Truffula Fruit to go 'round." This reference to "my trees" has raised questions over the years, with some critics arguing the Lorax saw himself as owner of the forest. In their study, however, the researchers suggest the Lorax saw himself as part of the forest, speaking as a "personification of nature" on its behalf.
"Our analysis illustrates how the Lorax is not some self-proclaimed steward of the environment, but rather a participating member of the ecosystem," said lead author Nathaniel Dominy, a professor of anthropology at Dartmouth, in a statement. "In fact, many of the themes embedded in the narrative are textbook examples of ecological interactions. In my opinion, many of these dynamics were based on Geisel's own observations while he was in Kenya, and it's no accident that the Lorax looks the way he does."
According to Dominy and his colleagues, the Lorax bears a notable resemblance to the patas monkey (Erythrocebus patas), an orange-haired, mustachioed primate that inhabits a broad swath of central Africa, including the Laikipia Plateau. The similarity is apparent at a glance (see images above), but the researchers also tested it with facial-recognition software, which showed the Lorax's face is closer to that of a patas monkey than to the most similar-looking characters drawn by Geisel. Patas monkeys also make a wheezy alarm call that could have inspired the Lorax's voice, which is described in the book as a "sawdusty sneeze."
On top of that, the researchers note that "spiky, barren trees" pictured outside the Once-ler's home resemble the whistling thorn acacia (Acacia drepanolobium), a common tree species on the Laikipia Plateau. Patas monkeys rely on these trees for more than 75 percent of their diet, an example of a commensal relationship, or biological symbiosis between two species that benefits one without harming or helping the other. This kind of ecological intricacy is a key theme of "The Lorax," the researchers argue.
"The proposal that the patas monkey might be the real-life referent for Dr. Seuss' Lorax introduces an interpretation of the children's tale that undermines the core assumption of human exceptionalism. If we really want this biodiverse planet to thrive, we cannot consider ourselves as separate from the environment. This is the deep message of the Lorax: He is a part of the ecological system, not apart from it," said co-author Donald Pease, professor of English and comparative literature at Dartmouth. "If the Lorax is genuinely part of the environment, he is modeling the attitude we need to assume."
The Lorax's lesson has only grown more relevant in the decades since his debut, amid widespread deforestation, habitat loss and the broader crisis of global climate change. As for the book's possible real-world inspirations, Dominy and his co-authors argue "The Lorax" may be "a prophetic example of life imitating art imitating life," since populations of both patas monkeys and acacia trees have declined in recent decades. These trends have been linked to climate change, they note, as well as loss of habitat due to overgrazing by cattle and clearance of savanna for crops.
Regardless of where he drew inspiration for "The Lorax," Geisel conveyed a message that can apply to a wide range of environmental problems, both large and small. As the Once-ler finally realizes near the end of the book: "UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot / Nothing is going to get better. It's not."
Inset image credits: Wikimedia Commons ("The Lorax" cover [fair use]); Shawnscreativeside/Shutterstock (patas monkey)