“Which way does a tree fall?” asked the titular creature in Dr. Seuss’ 1971 book “The Lorax.”
The answer — at least for the fabled “Lorax Tree” in La Jolla’s Scripps Park — is down. The 100-foot Monterey cypress toppled at 7 a.m. Thursday, June 13.
The City of San Diego’s arborist took samples to determine an official cause of death. But workers from the City’s Park & Recreation Department — who were on site within an hour to chainsaw the tree’s branches off — said they suspected old age, the tree having lived out its average lifespan of 80 to 100 years.
“Sometimes, it’s just time,” one worker said, declining to provide his name. “Look at the roots, they’re dry as a bone even though the ground is wet.” The tree was removed on Tuesday, June 18.
Had the tree fallen just an hour or two later, serious injuries — or worse — would have been likely. Said City spokesperson Tim Graham: “Although we regret the loss of this iconic tree, it was fortunate that it fell in the early morning.”
The City is looking into potential plans to replace the tree, though pop-cultural icons are impossible to replace.
“This is an utter loss for Dr. Seuss fans everywhere,” said Brittany Katz, a tourist from Los Angeles whose friend, a lifelong La Jolla resident, took her to Scripps Park specifically to view the tree. (In grade school, Katz said, she made a “Cat in the Hat” hat for Dr. Seuss’ March 2 birthday.)
In “The Lorax,” which La Jolla resident Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel once called his favorite book to write, a factory owner cuts down all the trees and devastates the ecosystem in spite of the Lorax creature’s warnings. (The Lorax is not a tree but a personification of the environment, a character who “speaks for the trees” because the trees “have no tongues.”)
Nearly every native La Jollan knows that Dr. Seuss was inspired to create his fictional truffula trees by viewing the Scripps Park cypress from the observation tower built into his Mt. Soledad home. Except that this story may be just as fictional as “The Lorax,” which explains why a plaque was never placed below the tree explaining its significance.
Geisel, who was notoriously interview-averse, did not publicly reveal the truffulas’ inspiration before his death in 1991. But before the tree fell, a few websites reported the Scripps Park cypress’ Seuss connection as fact — the most reputable being smithsonianmag.com. (The others used similar language, suggesting they copied that story.) And in the days after the Monterey cypress fell, CNN, CBS News and The Today Show all used “thought to have inspired” in their reports on the tree’s death. (Many quoted the smithsonianmag.com story.)
More likely, however, it’s an urban legend — like the myth of the Mt. Soledad Munchkins — derived from wishful thinking of generations of La Jolla residents and tourists seeking a personal connection to pop culture that they could see, touch, and tell their friends about.
According to the 1995 book “Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography” by Judith and Neil Morgan, the truffulas were inspired by trees that Geisel and his wife, Audrey, saw while staying at the Mount Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki, Africa, where about 90 percent of “The Lorax” was written in 1970. In fact, a 2018 essay in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution pegged the trufullas as the whistling thorn acacia trees of Kenya. The essay’s authors — three anthropologists and an English professor — went as far as using facial-recognition software to determine that the Lorax’s face closely resembles that of Kenya’s patas monkeys, which depend on thorn acacias for their diet. (Could this explain why the Lorax is so keen to protect the truffulas?)
“We really have no idea if Ted based the truffula trees on this tree,” read an e-mail to the Light from Susan Brandt, president of Dr. Seuss Enterprises. “But we are saddened to hear that this beautiful tree has fallen down, as we are when any tree that has lived for decades falls. (And) we are happy to hear that the park district has plans to plant a new tree.”
In the end, the truth of the truffulas’ inspiration matters less than the tree mattered to La Jollans. Everyone who grew up here knew the Lorax Tree and had their own personal relationship with it. (Indeed, two hours after it fell, one man was seen absconding with a branch as a keepsake. And Graham even said that the City plans to salvage the tree’s trunk in hopes of repurposing it.)
“It’s kind of part of the family,” said La Jolla resident Alice Perricone. “It was beautiful. It had a shape like a gumdrop. I called it the gumdrop tree. It’s not like every other tree. It was beautiful. We’ve lost a part of us here.”