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Dr. Seuss published The Lorax in 1971 when he was already 67 years old. It sprang from him after a years-long depression that lifted only after he and his second wife traveled to Africa together. Inspired by the natural wonders they saw, and well aware that it was all under threat, he wrote a parable for humanity. The message is simple: Unrestrained greed left unchecked will despoil the planet unless we decide to restore and preserve it. The Truffula trees created a fortune for The Once-ler, that is until the axe fell on the last and The Lorax and all the animals vanished.
The Once-ler is the voice of the past, but he also echos the fact that once things are gone, they vanish with a chilling finality.
The Lorax is the archetypal lone voice warning of the environmental catastrophe that looms ahead from deforestation — the clear cutting of the Truffula trees. His warnings went unheeded and the wildlife departed, along with The Lorax himself. The Once-ler, now a lonely hermit, gifts the one remaining Truffula seed to the young boy who’d come to hear the tale of The Lorax. In that one seed is the hope for a world reborn. These are the now repentant Once-lers words, not The Loraxes’, who had long since absconded.
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,The Once-ler, The Lorax, Dr.Seuss, 1971
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
This tale is one I can relate to on several levels. At 64, I am working to restore habitat throughout Long Island via The Long Island Conservancy. Like The Lorax, I witnessed year by year the wanton destruction of Nature — Long Island’s woods, marshes and bays. My town quadrupled in size Post-WWII. Finally came the day when I could find no place in town where I couldn’t see a house. The woods are now mostly bulldozed and the marshes filled in, yet “development” continues apace to a predictable bitter end.
Nassau and Suffolk Counties, taken together as a country, would have the population density of Bangladesh, which is #4 in the world. Little room is left for Nature, certainly not in our suburban yards, which are mostly an amalgam of non-native and invasive plants that provide little ecological value. As yards are clear cut of their native trees in favor of lawn because apparently leaves spoil the scene, our animals themselves are leaving. The lawns are lifeless. Who is listening?
But there is yet hope. “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.” There is an emerging “rewilding” movement on Long Island and globally that starts in our yards and in our communities. People are “Going Native” as the way to a livable future for us and for our local wildlife. We all need to learn what belongs here, what doesn’t, and what needs to go. A hundred years ago, we knew our plants. No more. We are all now suffering from Plant Blindness. No one knows what they are seeing any more. Teaching people how to identify and remove invasive plants is crucial if we are to restore native habitat in our communities.
The Long Island Conservancy is The American Chestnut Foundation‘s Long Island representative. There were 3-4 billion of these trees as recently as 1904, when an Chinese Chestnut tree that was blight infected was planted at The New York Zoological Society (today’s Bronx Zoo). The windblown fungus spread very quickly.
Now only a few remnant stands remain. The chestnuts must be gathered for hand pollination for today the winds carry none of their pollen. We have 200 saplings now as part of a breeding program. Long Island is short 100,000 American Chestnut trees. We intend to return them using blight resistant local ecotypes.
We can only imagine what wildlife would return with this forest giant, but return it we will. We are all Loraxes now. We know the damage, the loss, and we together are seeking to heal Nature.
Dr. Seuss and I
Like Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel ’25), I went to Dartmouth College. Like him, I lived on the 4th Floor of Topliff dorm, was a brother in Sig Ep, and majored in English. Like him, I am a lover of nature. I was a creature of Long Island’s swamps and woods, and so Dartmouth was my choice. Ted Geisel’s father was Springfield MA’s parks commissioner while he attended Dartmouth. I brought free public Wi-Fi to New York City’s major parks.
I was literally marinated in Dr. Seuss growing up, taking all his books written through 1964, and taking them into the bathtub with me, much to the horror of my mother. I always took great pleasure in noting to people that Dartmouth could produce a Dr. Seuss or a Mister Rogers even with it’s rough hewn reputation people who were vastly creative, who championed community, who called on the child in all of us.
The John G. Kemeny Award: A Call To Service
I got to thinking about The Lorax and Dr. Seuss since I am to be honored along with Lisa Spade by The Class of ’81 with the Inaugural John G. Kemeny Award October 21st at Dartmouth Homecoming. Kemeny was President of Dartmouth 1970-1981. He worked with Feynman on The Manhattan Project, with Einstein at Princeton, invented the BASIC computing language, Chaired The Three Mile Island Commission and was my math professor my freshman fall.
As someone just emerging from the swamps and woods of Long Island, a hick from the sticks, if you will, I found comfort in Prof. Kemeny’s old world charm, his glow of humanity, his humor. Both my parents were scientists. He was Eastern European and Jewish, like my mom’s family, and deeply cultivated, like my parents. He was warm and familiar in the midst of all the khakis and topsiders. Kind and deeply principled, he steered Dartmouth through coeducation, brought diversity to the campus, set the course for today’s Dartmouth, which one could say is today a university in all but name, and inspired all he encountered to be their best selves.
The award is given to those who have, in the judgement of officers of the Class of ’81 made the world a better place. President Kemeny, even by his very presence but certainly by example, embodied a call to service. Selflessness, whether in the pursuit of knowledge, or as he masterfully led The College through great change, or working in defense of our country as a scientist, was his hallmark. As a former student, I can attest to how much he was ready to hear each of us, to encourage us to work for the greater good.
I awake now each morning asking myself what more I can do to bring people to understand what they can each do to preserve and restore Nature in their communities and in their yards. The challenges we are facing will take all of us to answer.
The Lorax as a Dartmouth Tale
With the release of the feature film, The Lorax (2012), which was produced by Chris Meledandri (also Dartmouth ’81), English Professor Donald E. Pease, the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professor in the Humanities and author of Theodor SEUSS Geisel (Oxford University Press, 2010), offered a compelling analysis as to how The Lorax sprang in part from Dr. Seuss’ experience at Dartmouth, where one is indeed immersed in nature, but where the winters last to where spring starts to seem in doubt. I am proud to say he was a mentor. I took four courses from him, and went to graduate school in English at The University of Chicago, where he had studied, upon his recommendation.
Professor Pease notes that the school motto, “Vox Clamantis in Deserto” — “A Voice Calling in The Wilderness” — could describe The Lorax itself. These are the words of John The Baptist. He was heralding a future restoration, even as his calls were solitary and ignored.
Founded originally as a missionary school to teach Native Americans in 1769, Dartmouth College only graduated 19 Native Americans until John Kemeny brought Dartmouth back to its original purpose by establishing the Native American Studies program as he assumed office in 1970. A voice called, and was heard and answered.
Dartmouth taught me the value of acts of service. In 2015, I championed General Stanley McChrystal and his call for a year of service for our college youth to Dartmouth. Today, students can take a year before or during their college years to give back to the community and the world. We must re-instill in our youth a spirit of civic duty.
Our Alma Mater is a Paean To Mother Nature
Anyone who has been to Dartmouth knows just how deeply connected to nature its students are. It’s really unavoidable. The college sits on a hill surrounded by forest, with The Connecticut flowing along it’s western flank. It is a world unto itself. We endure the long, seemingly interminable winters there together, and it informs us for the rest of our lives. It’s made explicit in the Alma Mater.
“…Though ‘round the girdled earth they roam,
Her spell on them remains;
They have the still North in their hearts,
The hill winds in their veins,
And the granite of New Hampshire
In their muscles and their brains….
They have the still North in their soul,
The hill winds in their breath,
And the granite of New Hampshire
Is made part of them ‘til death.”
We Must All Be Loraxes Now
Let us then become Loraxes. Have this lone voice become a chorus. The Lone Pine, our school symbol, must become a forest. Let us all speak for the trees, and for our local wildlife, wherever we live. There are a thousand in my class at Dartmouth, a thousand Dartmouth alums on Long Island, and eighty thousand around this “girdled earth.” Together, we can be heard as one: Nature must be restored in every community.
The story of The Lorax is itself a seed from which new life can sprout. It has inspired many millions across generations. If we join together we can all be heard proclaiming from this tiny “dust speck” we call home, “We Are Here, We Are Here, We Are Here!” Runaway greed has set this planet on fire. Nature must be restored. For this to happen, we first need to reaffirm our bonds, our connectedness, our community. Hate has no home in Whoville. Dr. Seuss’ works carry basic moral lessons, whether racism in The Sneetches, or authoritarianism in Yertle The Turtle. Teach your children well.
Restoring Nature On Our Campuses
As I toured various colleges with my son and daughter over the last five years, I noticed how on campus after campus the majority of the plants were non-native, and that invasive plants were a constant issue there, as they are now generally. At none of these schools was it even registered as an issue, however. The ivy covered buildings look stately and dignified until you learn that English Ivy is highly invasive and is killing millions of trees as birds eat their berries and spread it far and wide.
All this ties into a 19th Century aesthetic: The ivy, the privet, the lawn, all imports from England, all symbolizing the landed gentry, the country estate. Landscaping and gardening went global as empires grew. Exotics and specimen trees from Europe, Japan and China, were planted about on campus grounds, giving perhaps a Seussian strangeness to it all. The palm trees of Southern California, first imported by the Spanish, inspired Dr. Seuss in his adopted home of San Diego. As we are swiftly learning, though, in the absence of native plants, Nature “absconds”… never to return?
Restoring Nature Yard By Yard
That word hangs in the air. Will we choose to return what we unthinkingly, inadvertently destroyed, put back what belongs there, restore harmony, reconnect with Nature and with each other? I planted 3000 native plants on less than half an acre in my yard, seeking to spark a local native plant movement here on Long Island. There are regular yard tours, and from that there come new converts in this “rewilding” effort, a movement that is at once local and global.
Native plants just are. They don’t require extra water or fertilizer, don’t need chemicals to keep them alive. They thrive where they belong. All our gerry rigged, over-engineered absurdities are unnecessary. As we return our plants to their proper place, and remove the rest, the wildlife does indeed return, a small miracle. I saw it in my own yard with my own eyes. During the two years spent in lockdown, I saw day by day native habitat emerging.
Since I learned I was to receive The John G. Kemeny Award in April, I’ve felt impelled to make every day count. How could I further my efforts to voice the importance of planting native habitats? How, crucially, was I to reach young people? How would they ever learn the names of the trees they were looking at? As our knowledge of nature disappears, so it does as well. The knowledge that ignorance is dooming us is itself a call to action.
We are working with The Science Museum of Long Island in Nassau County and Meadow Croft, a “Roosevelt Estate” in Suffolk, developing these county parks as centers for young environmental education. We’ve removed acres of kudzu in the former and planted swamp maples, and are planting an American Chestnut orchard and a native wildflower garden at the latter. The plantings are to be marked with QR codes so that students can learn of the plantings and their purposes.
I became an environmentalist in 5th Grade with the first Earth Day. At 64, I think about the seeds that are now being planted and recall the ancient Greek adage,
A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”Anonymous
Here is our legacy: a gift of seeds, the harbinger of Nature’s eventual return. We won’t live to fully see it, but it is up to us to plant for those many who will follow us.
I welcome hearing from anyone from Dartmouth or from any school campus about native and invasive plants and about restoring habitat. I work on behalf of the future. What world would we choose to live in? How can succeeding generations learn to become good stewards in their communities? Our collective fate is up to each of us.