Sunday, July 23, 2006

The forest for the trees

I've reached the trees on the Pacific Northwest Shawl. Needless to say, when I announced this at my knitting group last Wednesday, one of the women asked, "you can't see the forest for the trees?" And ever since then, when I work on the trees, I think of that phrase, and of how I've never quite been sure what it means. My guess is that you get so lost in the details (of the trees, of lace, of life, of love, each minute something new) that you miss the bigger picture (the forest, the slowly growing finished object). Thinking about it, stitch after stitch, has inspired a few thoughts on this admittedly bizarre phrase.

What I don't understand about the phrase is that the forest is the trees, and the trees are the forest. No forest, no trees. I think of that picture, a cathedral-like stand of Aspens high in the Rockies of Colorado, where Coffeeboy and I went hiking last summer with his parents.

The trees make the forest, and the forest makes the trees; neither is complete without the other. God - or the devil - is in the details, as they say.

Lace is kind of like that, too. You work along, one little stitch after another, and slowly the bigger pattern emerges; you see the way things flow together or how the seagulls give way to stands of pine trees, just starting to show on the needle there. But sometimes you get so caught up in each row, counting to make sure every stitch is in place, that you do lose sight of what it will one day become.

I'm supposed to be reading about Quaker women preachers in colonial America right now, but I just can't stop thinking about the trees. It's a wildly extendable metaphor, of course. I'm reading books so fast these days, two books per day, that when I finish, the last thing I'm doing is pausing to collect my thoughts and find the bigger picture of the historiography. Yet I need to start doing that this week. My advisors are going out of town and I need to give them questions and talk through answers and arguments this week. I need to leave the trees behind for a while so I can see the forest.


Zarzuela said...

Your shawl is going to be so pretty! I've never totally understood that whole trees/forest thing myself. Just took a look through some of your last posts and had to say your kitties are too cute! :) And I've actually had ganglion cysts too only in the joints in my fingers when I was in college. Had to have surgery on one. Definitely not fun!


Rose said...

Huh...I always thought of the forest for the trees comment to be about losing track of the big picture for the details. Now I take it as a reminder to step back and change perspective. I'll definitely give your definition some thought.

Lazuli said...

Rose - but that's the same as what I said initially, right? The phrase usually means that you lose track of the big picture because you're caught up in details, not that you're focusing only on the bigger picture... Oh, I don't know... it's still very confusing to me! All I know is that there are details and bigger pictures, but how they relate? Who knows.

Anonymous said...

Pretty tree picture. That was a nice hike through the forest (or the trees).


Diana said...

Beautiful picture. I'm sure you and coffeeboy had a wonderful hike!