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Commentary: Dr. Seuss classic can teach new generations about the environment
0311Mike Matz
Mike Matz

Seventy-five years ago, Theodor Geisel wrote the first of his 44 popular books for children under the pen name Dr. Seuss. Included among such fanciful classics as "The Cat in the Hat" and "Green Eggs and Ham" is one of my family's all-time favorites, "The Lorax." My wife and I can hardly wait to take our children to see the new film adaptation - not only for fun but because it explains so well what I do.

One of the most recognizable quotes from "The Lorax" is: "I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues." And this is why the book holds special meaning, because reading about Truffula Trees, Swomee-Swans, and Humming-Fish is much easier than telling my kids I work to pass legislation that adds public lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Our nation's wild places, and the animals that live within them, aren't able to speak on their own behalf. They need an advocate, like the Lorax, who promotes and tries to safeguard these vanishing, undeveloped areas. That's why all of us in the conservation movement are working to champion protection of America's remaining wilderness in the halls of Congress.

"The Lorax" came out in 1971, when the environmental movement was young and growing, and helped crystallize and popularize the ideals and goals of a new generation. As an 11-year-old, I found the environmental problems of the day troubling - from oil spills off California's coast to the fire on Ohio's Cuyahoga River. Yet other accomplishments in those times, such as the Apollo 11 moon landing, galvanized a belief that our country also could find solutions. Quite literally, those events put me on my career path in conservation.

This job, however, will take far more than one generation to complete. I'm hoping that the new movie will convey to today's children that while we face serious issues of environmental degradation, they can do something about it. As the ending of "The Lorax" says, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

It's the mysterious Once-ler, whose factory must shutter and family all leave, who proposes how to make things better - treating the trees with care, giving them clean water and fresh air, as well as protection from axes that hack - so "the Lorax, and all of his friends, may come back."

Dr. Seuss said he didn't begin to write books with an ethical message in mind because, as he said, "kids could see a lesson coming a mile off." However, it would be difficult to mistake his caution against not only unbridled exploitation of a natural resource, such as forests, but also rampant consumerism. When we buy too many Thneeds, knitted from the tufts of the Truffulas, and forget that the trees "are what everyone needs," our society loses a vital balance.

The notion of keeping some places habitable for Swomee-Swans and Humming-Fish, comes across strongly in "The Lorax." It's a meaningful and marvelous point. Dr. Seuss captures the attention of young and old without overt moralizing, using whimsical words and magical concepts.

Remaining mindful of the importance of balance underlies the approach of all good conservation work. We're dependent on timber, and we know the industry is important. We try to find common ground, and have, in places where trees need to be logged to support jobs and local economies or to restore forest health and wildlife habitat. We work in multiple areas around the country with local residents, regional officials, and others to find community-based solutions. Typically that entails safeguarding some regions, while leaving others open to development. The idea is to even the scales.

Most important, wilderness protection efforts are about leaving future generations a natural heritage in which to hunt, fish, watch birds or bears, canoe, camp - and instilling an understanding of the need to be involved in making the country a better place.

"The Lorax" helps. Although my son thinks the movie will be too grown-up for his sister, we still plan to take them both to underscore the tale's conservation lessons again. After all, I can read the book only so many times before they want me to pick up "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" instead.

Mike Matz directs the Pew Environment Group's Campaign for America's Wilderness.

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