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Dartmouth Researchers Trace Inspiration For Dr. Seuss Book Back To Kenya

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YVONNE DE JONG & THOMAS BUTYNSKI
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In the book The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, a furry creature named the Lorax speaks up for the Truffula trees as they are being cut down. The character of the Lorax is generally seen as an outraged, even bossy spokesperson for the environment. But new research at Dartmouth suggests a different interpretation, in which the Lorax is actually part of the environment. Researchers believe the Lorax was inspired by real monkeys the author saw on a trip to Kenya in 1970.

Nathaniel Dominy is a biological anthropologist at Dartmouth College and lead author of a paper on this topic. He and his research team used what's called an Eigenface deconstruction method to calculate facial similarities between Seussian creatures and monkeys in Kenya. A computer compared images of the Lorax with images of monkeys that live in Kenya, clustering faces that were similar closer together.

 
 

"What we've found is that the Lorax clusters very closely with a very obscure monkey called a patas monkey. That was consistent with our idea that Ted Geisel, Dr. Seuss, may have seen those monkeys in the wild and was inspired by their appearance and their ecology to produce The Lorax," Dominy said.

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Researcher Sandra Winters takes a photo of the Lorax to compare with monkeys from Kenya.

 

On his trip to the Mount Kenya Safari Club on Kenya’s Laikipia plateau, Theodor Geisel was believed to have seen whistling thorn acacia trees and patas monkeys. Patas monkeys depend on the trees for most of their diet, which benefits the monkeys without harming the trees. Previous interpretations of The Lorax hinged on the assumption that the Lorax was a creation of Geisel's imagination. With the new research, Dominy said, there is a new understanding of what the Lorax represents as an interdependent part of the landscape. 

 

"The conventional reading of the Lorax is that he is a little bit frustrated. He proclaims that he speaks for the trees, so it's a self-proclaimed level of authority. And he's constantly admonishing and criticizing the Once-ler, the industrial-like creature. And this angry rhetoric is not particularly useful or constructive when dealing with polluting industries or dealing with policy makers."

 

For many environmentalists, this is what makes the Lorax the counterexample of how to have a constructive dialogue about the environment. But the new research reveals a new way to think about the character.

 

"Maybe the Lorax is not some self-proclaimed steward of the environment but rather a participating member of the ecosystem. I think his indignation and anger is much more understandable and even forgivable," he said. 

 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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