Community at Loggerheads Over a Book by Dr. Seuss

Times Staff Writer

There’s a little tale about trees that’s quickly become required reading all across timber-laden Mendocino County--not just in the classroom, but in the coffee shops and service station waiting rooms as well.

It’s not about the stately redwood, the towering symbol of a once-thriving economy in this depressed lumber town of about 900 residents--a place without even one traffic light, a mere eyeblink along U.S. 101, about 150 miles north of San Francisco.

The fascination is with the bright-colored Truffula trees, the imaginary plants that play a major role in “The Lorax,” a 1971 book by Dr. Seuss, the children’s author from La Jolla who for decades has charmed young readers with his rhyming whimsy about green eggs and ham and cats with hats.


A Run on ‘The Lorax’

Folks here say you can’t find the book anywhere within 100 miles, that you have to drive clear up to Eureka to find a bookstore that hasn’t already been cleaned out.

“There’s been a run on ‘The Lorax’ all across the county, that’s certainly safe to say,” said Marianne Loeser, president of the Long Valley teachers’ association in Laytonville.

The critical reviews started this fall when two prominent logging families complained that the book--which for a year has been required reading for second-graders in the 570-student Laytonville Unified School District--was a thinly veiled attack on the lumber industry.

In the book, a mossy, mole-like creature named a Lorax fights a fruitless battle against the ax-wielding, water-fouling Once-ler family, which wreaks environmental havoc on a make-believe forest by greedily harvesting all of its Truffula trees to make a multipurpose stocking called a Thneed.

The fuzzy-headed Lorax suddenly disappears, presumably at the hand of greed, after the Once-lers--”with a sickening smack of an ax on a tree”--cut down the last Truffula. The book ends, however, on an upbeat note as the remaining Once-ler asks that a seed from the last tree be planted and raised with care.

Two weeks ago, after several children came home from school to question their parents’ lumber industry jobs, a campaign began to buzz-saw the book from the required reading list--instead making it alternative reading.

Even though a specially appointed review committee voted 6 to 1 last week to keep the book on the second-grade core list, “The Lorax” isn’t out of the woods just yet. Logging advocates say they will appeal the issue to the school board, which meets next month.

“To teach this book is insensitive to us as pillars of the community,” said 63-year-old Bud Harwood, whose family owned logging company in nearby Branscomb employs about 300 people, making it by far the area’s biggest employer. “In our eyes, it’s an attack on the integrity of our industry. It’s not justified to have kids come home and tell their parents they’re working in a bad industry, that they’re criminals because they take the homes away from little animals.”

Without the controversy, teachers say, the book might well have been removed from the list soon enough. But now the issue borders on censorship, they say.

The dispute reflects tension that has been building in the community for months--even years--residents say.

Underlying the most recent haggling is the resentment felt by many logging families, which have lived quietly here for generations, against the often college-educated outsiders from San Francisco and Southern California who have invaded the region in recent years.

“Even the kids have been dragged into it,” said one coffee shop waitress who teaches dance part-time. “One little girl came up to me recently and said ‘Teacher, are you for the loggers or the hippies?’

“They’ve taught their children that anyone with an environmentalist stand is a hippie. They even sponsored a campaign recently to tie a yellow ribbon on your car to show your support of the logging industry.”

A three-hour drive north of San Francisco, Laytonville is more than a million miles away from the big city in character and spirit.

It’s a place where country music blares over the radio waves, where the locals post signs in the middle of town congratulating couples on their latest child, no last names needed.

The town sits on the southern face of the Redwood Wall--named for the tree that for decades has provided the area not only with an economic base, but an emotional cushion from the noise and pollution of the rest of California.

In Laytonville, the redwood is king. Symbols of the tree are everywhere. Locals call the surrounding region, “The Redwood Empire” and the stretch of U.S. 101 where they live “The Redwood Highway.”

On the west side of Laytonville sits Harwood Park--built with money donated by the logging family--with its dance hall, baseball diamond and rodeo arena.

Each year, Bill and Judith Bailey, wealthy logging equipment wholesalers, donate half-a-dozen $1,000 scholarships to area children. The Baileys are the family who first pressed the school board on the use of “The Lorax.”

“They think that just because they bought the town, they can tell people how to think,” said Kathi Cloninger, a member of the environmentalist group Earth First! A petition that was circulated to keep the book on the reading list drew at least 100 names, she said.

Since Laytonville is unincorporated--with no mayor, City Council or police force--political hagglings are often played out on its school board and within the pages of its weekly newspaper, The Mendocino County Observer.

Drives New Jaguar

Bailey, who drives a shiny new Jaguar in a town dominated by pickup trucks and junkyard clunkers, has written letters to the editor, blasting newcomers for criticizing the town “even while their radiators are still overheating.”

Diane Ackermann, the newspaper’s columnist retorted that, “The whole thing is a stab of desperation by the loggers, because they’re in a dying business, simple as that.”

In recent months, the town’s logging interests have taken on the school board, criticizing it for hiring too many inexperienced first-year teachers who come and go within a few years.

Art Harwood, the 36-year-old general manager of his family lumber business, used that theme to get elected to the five-member school board this year, becoming the second member with logging interests to sit on the panel.

And then came “The Lorax” issue.

The Baileys became upset after they discovered the journal kept by their 8-year-old son, Sammy, about his reactions to the Seuss book, Bill Bailey said.

“He came home one day and asked my wife, ‘Papa doesn’t love trees anymore, does he?’ ” said Bailey, who spent 14 years as a logger before opening his wholesale equipment business.

Petition Filed

After hearing reports from friends of their own children’s similar line of questioning, Judith Bailey filed a petition with the school district to have the book removed as required reading.

“No one ever suggested that the book be banned,” said Bailey, a college English major who says he has read and enjoyed the book. “But now they’re calling my wife a book banner and a book burner. It’s just not true.”

Theodor (Ted) Geisel, who as Dr. Seuss has written more than 40 children’s books including “The Cat in the Hat” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” is baffled by his book’s role in Laytonville’s environmental controversy.

“This book isn’t against logging at all,” the 85-year-old author said. “In fact, the book wasn’t even concerned with the wood in the trees, it was the leaves at the top of the trees, that’s all the Once-ler harvested.

“Wood was used as a symbol for many things. I don’t want to throw logs on their fire, but the book is taken up by schools and libraries all across the country as a symbol of conservation.”

Brian Buckley, superintendent of the Laytonville Unified School District, said the book was chosen to help satisfy the history, social science and literature requirements for second graders.

Several students said they won’t stop reading Dr. Seuss books.

“Dr. Seuss is strange, that’s why you like him,” said 15-year-old Jonah Renfort. “People grow up on him. For a little town like this, Dr. Seuss is about the strangest you can get.”