In the course of a remarkable writing life, Wallace Stegner wrote 35 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and dozens of articles and essays. He was justly celebrated as the dean of Western writers, a hugely influential voice for the environment who counted among his readers several US presidents.
This wise and productive scholar, teacher, and author, wrote millions of words in his career. His most famous work, though, may be just a single word, for which he has been uncredited even though it has been hiding in plain sight for more than four decades.
Stegner’s friends said he looked the way God ought to, so it would be both unkind and untrue to say that Stegner was the least bit brownish, or mossy. He was not particularly short. By all accounts he was rather kindly, neither sharpish nor bossy.
But Wallace Stegner may in fact have been the Lorax. He spoke for the trees.
In December, 1969, Stegner wrote an essay for American Heritage Magazine with the rather ominous title “Conservation Equals Survival.” While another essay, the famed “Wilderness Letter” from 1960, marked a significant moment for the conservation movement and has been widely anthologized, “Conservation Equals Survival” has not worn as well.
That may be because it is frankly grim, and unrelentingly so. With the Santa Barbara oil spill still fresh in the national consciousness, Stegner’s topic was pollution, and he takes a decidedly apocalyptic tone: “People are everywhere, and in trouble wherever they are. It is not only amenity, not only quality of living, not only a supply of raw materials or open space for our grandchildren that we must fight for. Paul B. Sears and William Vogt and others told us what was at stake thirty-odd years ago in the Dust Bowl years: survival. It is even more at stake now—survival of this civilization, perhaps even survival of the living world. And it is later than we think.”
Stegner catalogs, in his typically clear and often blunt prose, the roster of environmental ills from unbreathable air to undrinkable water to valleys cleared for “cheesebox homes.” Like a preacher who has caught the spirit, he rushes on: “Not one of our environmental problems—ecological disruption, depletion, pollution, the shrinking of healthy open space—gets anything but worse, despite all our ingenuity. For as we mine from nature more than we have a right to take, we make it possible to go on multiplying in exponential ways the real root of our difficulties: ourselves. There are too many of us now. Like bacteria, we multiply to the edge of our agar dish. When we arrive there, as many nations already have, we will either starve or strangle in our own wastes.”
And then, a pause.
A paragraph, maybe even an age, in the single word.
Set off by itself like that, amid the almost desperate pleas for sanity, the word almost glows. It is impossible to miss. Even if you are by this point in the essay either frightened beyond measure or too exasperated to carry on and have begun skimming the page and looking for the exit, that single word brings you up short.
We are doomed, says Stegner, “unless, being men and not bacteria, and living not in an agar dish but on a renewable earth, we apply to ourselves and our habitat the intelligence that has endangered both.”
We have no hard evidence that Ted Geisel, known to all as Dr. Seuss, ever read “Conservation Equals Survival.”” He knew Stegner, whom he met at a writer’s conference in Utah in 1949. Biographers of neither man document any lasting relationship between them, or even a mutual awareness beyond that brief encounter. But Geisel began writing The Lorax in 1970, just months after Stegner’s essay appeared in American Heritage.
Like Stegner, the Lorax got his dander up about the state of things, in his case about the Gluppity-Glupp and the Schloppity-Schlopp, the truffula trees and the Brown Bar- ba-loots. And when the last tree was cut, he lifted himself by the seat of his pants, and left behind just a small pile of rocks, and the one word, unless.
Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It hardly seems a leap to think that Geisel, like so many, found inspiration in the words of Wallace Stegner. And that one word in particular.