Reflections on The Lorax

By Chris Gordon Owen

Who but Dr. Seuss would pit a Lorax against a green-armed Once-ler? Who else would surround them with grickle-grass, smogulous smoke, and smeary water?

As always, the words shimmy and rhyme and tickle, but Dr. Seuss isn’t joking this time, as any kid can tell. He’s determined to call a spade a spade. Well, at least he says (through "The Lorax") that greed is greed, and we’d better pay attention.

First let’s get the story straight. When the Once-ler discovers he can make money selling Thneeds (objects made from Truffula Tree tufts), he invents machines to fell the trees faster and he erects factories to mass-produce the Thneeds. As a result, the water and air are polluted, and the resident population is deprived of food and shelter. Despite the pleas

of the Lorax, who speaks for the trees as well as for the surrounding community, the destruction continues until not a creature remains. Too bad, says the Once-ler, but business is business.

Business dries up too, though, when all the trees have been chopped down. Alone in his lerkim, the Once-ler is left to ponder a stone bearing the word UNLESS, which the Lorax left behind. By the time a curious traveler shows up, the Once-ler has figured out that "UNLESS someone like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not." And he produces one surviving Truffula seed that can be planted to start a new grove of trees.

The story can certainly be read as a rant against profit-driven despoilers of our forests and waterways. But it also says plenty about an urban environment that has become increasingly inhospitable to low-income people.

Our own Once-lers pay unlivable wages and keep erecting luxury buildings where there could, should, and used to be low-cost housing. The shrubs in front of the municipal building might look like an innocent landscaping choice, but like the Once-lers’ axes, they too have eliminated shelter. Bus shelter benches are modified and removed to discourage homeless people from lounging near the nice new buildings. Rules against sleeping in parks, on sidewalks, and in cars are enforced.

Fortunately we also have Loraxes and seed-planters. Housed and unhoused, they work on getting affordable housing and, in the meantime, more shelters; they help distribute food surpluses at soup kitchens, shelters, and outdoor meals; they come together at Real Change, StreetWrites workshops and performances, the StreetLife Gallery, tent cities, and public forums. The seeds are also carried to less public gardens, where people have been enticed to examine and discuss their preconceptions about reality, about hope, or the lack of it.

I’ve examined my own assumptions more closely since a homeless veteran named David Ballenger was stabbed to death under I-5 near Greenlake, blocks from where I live. Although I’ve always been distressed by the homeless situation, I used to be overwhelmed by the apparent impossibility of changing it.

But in September I joined a candlelit vigil along the waterfront for Ballenger and other victims, and I started meeting people who believe that we can’t expect things to change unless we take action.

During the vigil I heard a poem by Anitra Freeman, a Real Change, SHARE/WHEEL, and StreetWrites stalwart who can be as delightfully funny as Dr. Seuss (all without rhymes or made-up words). Like him she can also be perfectly serious and say just what she means, as she does in the final lines of "Survival Poem" lines that Dr. Seuss would surely recognize as her version of UNLESS:

How do we save a thousand lives?

Hold one hand

Listen to one voice

Look in one face

at a time.