Real-Life Lorax Has a Few Words From (and About) Trees

The movie version of the Dr. Seuss’s classic conservation story The Lorax tells the story of Ted, a boy who wanders beyond the walls of Thneedville, a superficial, plastic-loving city, in search of a real tree to impress the artistic Audrey. By the ruins of the once beautiful Truffula-tree forest, he meets the Once-ler, who tells Ted of the tree-loving Lorax, who used to say, “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

It turns out National Geographic has its own Lorax: Meg Lowman, an NG grantee and director of the Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She is currently working to conserve forests in Ethiopia.

You’re widely known as “Canopy Meg” but can we call you a real-life Lorax?
I do speak for the trees.

So what do the trees have to say?
“We will keep you healthy and happy if you just leave us alone.”
The rainforest, while we are asleep, will do all our ecosystem services—all the things that trees do that are essential for humans and animals to stay alive—and they don’t really need anything in return.

In The Lorax, the O’Hare Air company already sells bottled oxygen, so one question comes up in the movie: What are real trees for?
They provide oxygen for free! You have to ask, how much will it cost seven billion people to buy bottled water and bottled oxygen? But trees will provide that for free. How much money would it cost if you had to purify your water with a factory, instead of with the leaves of the forest canopy? Or how much would it cost if you had to house 5 million insects on little tiny condos instead of them living in the cavities of a tree trunk?
Trees keep us alive and healthy. They provide medicines; they might even hold the cure to cancer. They store carbon, taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere; they provide many different kinds of food. Those are the ecosystem services trees provide, and they don’t need anything in return. If you just leave trees alone they will continue to do those services for free.

Are trees fun?
They are totally fun. First of all they are beautiful! They are the best architecture in the world. A lot of cool things live in them! You can be up on a tree where millions of things live and be surrounded by all sort of cool activities that you would never see at ground level like birds nesting and insects eating in their salad bar, which are all those millions of leaves. It’s fun to sleep up there, too.

Do trees need our help?
The biggest threats to the forest are our human activities, our human consumption. People buy a lot of things, products that we don’t know where they come from or how they affect the trees. Even products like coffee, bananas, and soy beans. If you buy products where they have to clear tracts of forest to grow these crops, the nutrients from the canopies are burned up and the rainforest soil is very poor because most of the nutrients are in the canopy. In the end the farmer has to go and clear another area and plant all over again because the crops are starting to fail. If we can buy things that are sustainable then we are being responsible consumers.

How did you go from studying tree canopies to becoming a real-life Lorax?

I grew up in a really small town. My best friend and I played around tree forts, we used to rescue earth worms cut up by the lawn mower. We had this really neat little place that we went in the trees. Even when it rained all the leaves kept us dry over our heads. We could be safe up there even when the rest of the world, people driving or walking down the sidewalk, was getting really wet. I grew up and I still loved trees. I was one of the first persons in the world to go up into the tree canopies and study the amazing biodiversity. One day I started to look down and noticed that a lot of forests were really disappearing. You can’t study tree canopies if there are no forests so I’m focused more on conservation efforts now.

What is your favorite tree?
My favorite trees are fig trees. They are really important trees for so many people in so many parts of the world. They are sacred in India, they are very important medicine trees in places like the Amazon. They are just extraordinary, beautiful, and useful trees.

In The Lorax, the word “unless” sends a message to kids: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.” What word would you pass on to kids?
Solutions. They can [bring about] change if they focus on the solutions.

—Antonieta Rico

Human Journey