To “not see the forest for the trees” implies getting lost in the details of a situation and not understanding the broader issue. When applied to a natural forest, it refers to focusing on the individual plants and animals around you but not comprehending the forest as a whole ecosystem of interacting parts. Now, more than ever, researchers are beginning to understand the meaning of the interconnections within ecosystems. One such interconnection is between trees and fungi; trees communicate underground via the network of fungal hyphae sharing nutrients. In addition, trees release air-born chemicals to communicate with each other to attract or repel insects collectively. Chemicals released by trees also impact the atmosphere within the forest, which has a positive emotional effect, certainly on humans and now promoted as “forest bathing”; indeed, it may equally impact other species.
Furthermore, all the various animal and plant species are essential for maintaining the forest ecosystem. The traditional view that an ecosystem is no more than separate individuals competing for existence is a narrow perspective and not the only way to view a forest. The idea of the interconnections among all species and individuals constituting a forest gives a more holistic understanding of the forest. When we humans evolved, we left the forest and entered the savannah. Our survival depended on our upright posture walking on two legs, freeing our hands to become dexterous tools, and subsequently, our brains enlarged. However, we did and still do, depending on resources from forests. Various foods, building materials, and firewood come from forests. In addition, forests create oxygen and control global water and carbon cycles, which, in a real way, allow us to breathe and survive on this planet. We humans seem to be losing sight of our role in that system and should try to practice ways of being in or being a part of a forest. However, I think that a sense of being part of a forest is still with us. Though we inherently like open spaces, we still feel a sense of connection with forests. Thus, being in a forest – enjoying it, feeling a sense of peace, being part of it, feeling protected – can be achieved in different ways. Years ago, I spent three late winters, spring and early summers studying the Boreal Owl. The first year I travelled by skis and snowshoes when there was snow on the ground and later walking or travelling by bicycle. I was immersed in my study area. I encountered all manner of life and sounds within the forest, from the wind playing music as it wafted through the branches of the different species of trees to owls swooping down to catch unsuspecting voles on the ground. Moving through the forest under my power and exposed to the elements, I could witness and be part of the forest. In the second and third year, I acquired a car as I felt I needed to get around quickly and efficiently. It did not take me long to realize that I was cut off from the experience of being in the forest by being enclosed within metal and glass. Sure, I would drive to a spot and get out and do the things one does when studying some aspect of a forest, but I forgot to be in the forest. As a career ecologist, this has haunted me. When you study some part of ecology, you tend not to “see the forest for the trees.” So, the challenge becomes to find a harmonious existence between the two ways of being in the forest – being focused on a narrow objective and being open to the whole of the forest. There is nothing wrong with driving along a road through a forest; the scenery can be spectacular. However, it does not allow one to experience the forest as an interconnected living system. I would argue that travelling through a forest by any motorized means cuts one off from fully experiencing the forest. If you go for a walk through a forest, there can be several different experiences. You may walk with a friend and be in deep conversation, and essentially miss out on your surroundings. Or you may be so preoccupied within your mind that you also miss being in the forest. Again, there is nothing wrong with this – the discussion with your friend is valuable, or your solitary introspection may solve some serious issues. Doing this within a forest may be just the right place. These ways of being in a forest are beneficial, but you will not feel like you are a part of your surroundings. You may walk through the forest and be intensely on the lookout for various species of organisms, whether just birds or plants or any species you encounter. I will argue that this is a way of “seeing the trees and not the forest.” When I focus on the details or individual parts of something, I tend not to see the whole. And this is true of forests. When I walk through a forest, I will often practice not focusing on anything specific but try to take in the forest by using all my senses. This can be accomplished by feeling the ground under my feet with each step, being aware of the sounds I hear, the smells I perceive, what I see, and the feeling when I touch a branch or a tree trunk. When we walk through a forest, many organisms become silent and hide as we represent potential predators. Sometimes I will sit still for a long time under a tree and let the forest come alive. By sitting still, we become invisible. Sitting still, I have had birds land on me, and voles sit on my boots and preen. There are many ways of experiencing a forest. None is right or wrong, but to always experience a forest only one way limits the potential of being in, and indeed, being a part of the complex, interconnected ecosystem that is a forest.