Channeling the Lorax
In The Lorax, Dr. Suess’s parable about ecological disaster, our hero harshly informs the narrator:
"I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”
We know how the story ends. Our narrator, called the Once-ler, stubbornly ignores the Lorax’s insistent warnings about his destruction of the bountiful and beautiful Truffula Trees. He needs them to grow his new industry producing thneeds, wildly popular all-purpose pieces of clothing that he claims “everyone needs.” Things go from bad to worse, as the Once-ler cuts down more and more Truffulas, listens less and less to the shrill cries of the Lorax, and ultimately brings environmental devastation upon every living thing, all in the name of business and progress. At the very end of this great American morality play, the Once-ler drops the very last Truffula seed into the hands of the young boy listening to his story, telling him:
You're in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back."
I have long been inspired by the moral urgency and environmentalist clarity of The Lorax. Seuss published this prescient defense of stewardship and sustainability in 1971. This was only a year after the Nixon administration passed the Environmental Protection Act and many years before anyone outside of a small coterie of scientists was fretting about global warming. Its call to us to speak for the trees and the rest of nature is even more relevant today.
However, I wonder if Dr. Seuss got one part of his message wrong. Certainly, the protection of our environment is squarely in our hands, for we are its most productive and destructive species. Who else will, as it were, speak for the trees if not us? Yet what if the best way for us to speak for the trees is for us to speak to the trees and listen to them speak as well?
Since the start of COVID, I have spent a great deal of time hiking, walking and forest bathing among the trees of our capital district. Finding myself increasingly entranced by their world, I have been reading some masterful accounts of their extraordinary existence, beyond their usefulness as providers of food, medicine, oxygen, beauty, and shade. Trees possess what the celebrated naturalist, Peter Wohlleben calls a hidden life of cross species communication and cooperation. The more scientists study this hidden life, the more we understand that trees, in their own non-neural way, think, feel, and communicate, regardless of our awareness of them. This idea that we are in relationship with trees as conscious entities, not merely as sources of wood, has pre-scientific precedents in ancient world wisdom, especially that of the indigenous cultures of the Americas.
I am discovering that some of this living tree wisdom exists in the mythological literature of Judaism, my tradition. As a monotheistic religion, Judaism rejects the idea that gods or spirits reside in and animate trees or other species. Everything is created lovingly by the one God, and only God can create. Nonetheless, a rich Jewish legendary literature has grown up over millenia. It compares trees to humans, describes the self- revelation of God in arboreal terms, sees trees as the ongoing sources of human wisdom, and even imagines trees screaming in pain when they are cut down in their youth. In Jewish mythic literature, people talk to trees, bless and thank trees, and pray for trees when they are sick.
I am currently writing a book on recovering this rich Jewish heritage for my own life. Through this heritage and my walks among the trees of the field, I am beginning to see that the trees and I have a lot to say to each other, and we owe each other a lot more. I am preparing to not only write about the trees in my life but to write to them; and on certain quiet mornings in my back yard or a majestic forest grove, I know that I will be speaking to them and they to me, as well. I will use my human words, and their wind-fluttered leaves and branches will whisper and wave: “Listen to us, do not forget about us, protect us, honor us.”
Speaking with and embracing trees as partners in an active relationship with us could bring us to a more passionate awareness of their meaningful presence in our lives. They are more than mute, defenseless objects in nature’s economy, their welfare dependent entirely upon our will. They are subjects, making demanding, rightful claims of mutual responsibility upon us. Indeed, the Lorax was correct; the trees literally have no tongues. But they do have voices.
Dan Ornstein is the rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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