As early as the 1500s, “you can’t see the forest for the trees” was in wide enough use that it was published in collections of proverbs and slang. As anyone who has been in a forest knows, it can be easy to fall into the trap of just looking at the individual trees, rather than considering the forest as a whole.

According to the “saying,” it’s really easy to lose the forest while you are looking at a tree.

Is that true? When you look at a tree, do you forget you’re in a forest? Is it that easy to forget the larger picture because you can only see part of it? Do we forget we are in a city because we’re looking at a building? Do we forget we are reading a book because we are looking at one page? At the risk of arguing with a “known fact,” I don’t need to see the whole city to know I’m in one.

Meanwhile, I really do live in a forest. Not an allegorical or metaphorical forest. We have a whole lot of trees covering a substantial amount of terrain. Our house is right on the edge of it. The forest is primarily red oak trees, with some other hardwood and a bare hint of pine. We used to have a walnut tree, but it went down in a hurricane years back.

If you live in a woods, it’s true that you can’t see the whole forest, but it doesn’t mean you don’t know it’s there.

Unless you looking down from a helicopter, you will never see the whole forest, yet I’m sure all of us can deduce, infer, and assume the larger picture. Whether or not you can see it in its entirety changes nothing. You see trees, but your brain believes “forest.” Not seeing the whole picture does not mean you don’t know there is one

Photo: Garry Armstrong

How many trees I can see from my house depends on where I am. From the back deck, I see forest. Fewer trees from the front or side of the house. But what’s the difference between the forest and the trees? Isn’t a forest just a bunch of trees? How many trees do you need before it’s a forest (rather than a bunch of trees)? Is there a definition?

Despite this, I bet you can tell the different between a group of trees and a forest every time, without assistance.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Parts of things embody the spirit of the whole. This is how we understand our world and ourselves. No matter what piece you look at, you retain awareness of its connection to something larger. We are individuals, but part of a family, a company, clan, tribe. Humanity as a whole. Without this fundamental grasp of reality, we could not live in the world.

So how do you know whether you’re looking at a single tree, or standing at the edge of a forest? Look around. If you see a lot more trees, put your money on “forest.” If you see a parking lot and a Walmart sign? Think “mall.” Of course, the Walmart could be at the edge of the forest. but I think you’ll work it out.

Categories: #Photography, Nature, photo, Sayings and Platitudes, Trees, Woods

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16 replies

  1. Love these! You know I am a big fan of woodsy pictures…great post!


  2. Leaves are sneaky around here.
    You’re walking along and everything is bare.
    You turn your back and BANG !!! leaves everywhere !
    I figure they do it at night.


  3. Forest or trees you can’t have one without the other and the photos show it so well.


  4. A very common problem where I work. It’s easy to concentrate on our one piece of code and forget it’s got to fit into the “bigger picture” at some point.
    Nice photos! And I also felt moved to Google the difference between “forest” and “woods”. No easy answer there. As native English speakers we seem to generally use the appropriate word, but with no easy explanation as to why 🙂


    • Try these. Still not really “clear.”

      (1) The origins of the words give a clue. Wood is derived from Old English, while forest is a Frankish word that came to Britain with the Normans and which included any wild area, not necessarily tree-covered. (2) Originally, ‘forest’ meant a royal hunting ground, which is why they are usually larger than ‘woods’; woods can be just a few trees, whereas a forest is usually much larger and denser, both in trees and vegetation.

      I can actually see where code is one of those times where it isn’t hard to forget that this needs to be part of a longer process. Probably less of a problem when you don’t need so many coders working on the project!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The trouble is, for a poet, where you actually are can be immaterial. To wrest an old saw – If you hear hooves, imagine you’re in the Serengeti.


  6. Love the photos, especially the first one. Somehow that saying reminds me of my working days and solutions to problems that were not really problems but people that decided to turn them into problems because, simply said, they did not see the forest for the trees.


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