Seeing the Trees for the Forest

A few months back, my karate teacher recited to the kids in class the old saying of not seeing the forest for the trees. Truthfully, I forget the context—probably that they were missing the big picture of why we study karate or what each of the individual moves of the kata add up to (an imaginary battle, so treat it seriously). Surprisingly, all of them stared blankly at him, having never heard that expression. And when I tried to explain it to them later, I didn’t give a very coherent answer, which made me realize that that was the first time I had used the expression since coming to see the world as a Gaian, and perhaps that had changed my perspective.

Do you see a forest in this photo or a community of trees? (Image by the US Forest Service via flickr)

Etymological Roots

First some history. The original saying, dating from 1546, is this:

From him who sees no wood for trees/
And yet is busie as the bees/
From him that’s settled on his lees/
And speaketh not without his fees”.

According to Grammarist, it was considered a political statement, criticizing the current Pope who did not see the troubles of the people, being too interested in money. I had no idea!

And just a quick aside: the original saying, as you can see, is actually Wood for Trees, which sounds like something silly I used to hear while playing Settlers of Catan (“I have wood for trees,” meaning, I’ll trade you the same thing you have.*). But the Wood in this case refers to the ‘woods’ not wood, as in the commodity trees often end up as. The latter would be a very different saying—a capitalistic one, in which people can’t see the economic value of commodities (for whatever reason, though the best one would be because these are living beings that play an integral role in the world and are worth more alive than as logs).

Anyway, today this not-so-complimentary saying has come to mean that someone is so focused on the specific details that he cannot see the big picture—and other than young kids, perhaps, is familiar to most English speakers.

Seeing the trees for their wood. (Image from the US Forest Service’s Annual Volunteer Firewood Tree Slaughter via Flickr)

Seeing the Trees for the Forest

But what’s interesting to me now is that we so often overly focus on forests and not the trees that we suffer from the opposite problem: missing the nuance and particularities. Take the literal example: There are thousands of efforts to reforest going on right now, often paid for by the corporations through the voluntary carbon market, in which they can offset their climate emissions by planting trees. But are the projects so focused on growing forests (ultimately to fulfill broader corporate sustainability expectations) that they miss the reality that they are building a community of individual trees? We know now that trees thrive in community—helping each other defend against pests, and with nourishment, for example, and are all woven together via a mycorrhizal fungal network (or the wood wide web).**

Seeing this tree as an individual, as a community member, and the entire community of life that it really is. (Image by Erik Assadourian)

Another example: Most of us, when spending time in the ‘wood,’ also never actually see or interact with the trees—it’s just a picturesque forest landscape. That was certainly the case for me for much of my life—hiking through pretty forests, staying along the marked path, and never really connecting with individual trees. Through my forest bathing classes, in which I invite participants to stop and hang from a tree, or better, have a conversation with a tree, or even to be a tree, that helps us get back to the details rather than overly focus on the big picture.

In fact, just yesterday I had a conversation with a professor of religion who studies shamanism who made the very point of how traditional peoples often refuse to extrapolate the wisdom or traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) they have of the lands they’re part of to the global picture, saying ‘I know about this place, not others.’ The scientific mind, in its hubris, tries to explain everything with its universal theories and findings, which may be part of the problem. Possibly it’s this imagining that we understand the big picture more clearly than we do (even when detaching from the individual nuances) that we’ve been able to pretend we can master nature, control Gaia, and not suffer the consequences.***

So with that said, maybe it’s time to update this saying. For example:

“More and more companies are switching to recycled plastic packaging, but should instead be using reusable packaging.”

“Yeah, companies are so obsessed with lowering their Scope 3 emissions, that they can’t see the trees for the forest.”

(Scope 3 emissions, for the lucky ones who don’t know what those are, is a jargony term for the carbon emissions caused indirectly by them, for example the electricity used by consumers when using a product they make.)

Or how about:

“Jane is so obsessed with losing weight, that she’s eating ultraprocessed diet foods and injecting herself with Ozempic, instead of consuming less, eating healthy foods, and moving more.”

“Jeesh, it sounds like she can’t see the trees for the forest.”

Or perhaps instead of an inversion, we need an update that addresses an even deeper oversight:

From him who sees no wood wide web amidst the trees/
He spends his days trying to save the bees/
Yet goes on shopping sprees and drives an SUV.
This man is missing the interlinked nature of Gi.

So, along with missing the big picture and the details, try not to miss the underlying connections either!

Seeing the forest as made up by all the trees, collaborating, communicating, and coexisting. (Image by Politofo via Pixabay)


*Though Wood for Sheep has a different interpretation altogether!

**If that nuance were understood, how we plant trees (utilizing mother trees, interweaving diverse species, improving soils, etc.) would be vastly different than how we do so today, which prioritizes commercially viable species, monocrops, uses heavy machinery that packs soils and compromises the fungal networks, etc.

***The professor also noted that the peoples she studies actually call the land, landlord or owner, and animistically sacrifices to it, recognizing the great power differential between the two. Being dependent on the land for survival, it becomes clearer that the land can kill you at any time, which surely helps deter hubris.

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