Missing the Trees for the Forest

Jan 12, 2021

Everything changed when I looked at a bird.

I was in my back yard. A myriad of chirps echoed their way through the trees. They blended with the instrumentals of the wind, coalescing into nature’s white noise. Within this chaotic blur of birds, a single chirp called out to me. I scanned the branches until I found its origin — a gray little bird with a squarish head, standing tall like an army general. Its straight-as-an-arrow tail feathers stretched out like a surfboard. It hopped about with authority.

It occurred to me that this bird has lived here all along, and yet I never noticed it. I wondered what kind of bird it was, and got excited when I remembered the smartphone app I downloaded — it can identify birds with a photo alone. But as soon as I pulled out my phone, the bird flew away. It knew what I was doing, and was having none of it.

I heeded the bird’s message, and put my phone away.

With the bird out of sight, I closed my eyes and tried to recall its image. I didn’t want to forget. I drew a loose sketch from memory:

I named him Sergeant Sam I named him Sergeant Sam

Forgive the low fidelity of this picture — as much as I enjoy drawing detailed illustrations of birds, this was a different exercise entirely. This wasn’t a drawing of a bird. It was a drawing of my bird. It was the bird I saw, the bird I met, the bird I kept in my heart and mind. There is none other like it.

When we notice a bird, behold it, remember it… we give it meaning.

But birds aren’t the only things we can infuse with meaning. These opportunities lie everywhere, like seeds waiting to be watered. In my old neighborhood, there was a towering tree I always noticed on my daily walks. I named it Phil. I visited the tree every day, and we became great friends. Phil turned my mundane walks into meaningful moments.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s masterpiece The Little Prince, a fox teaches the prince the same lesson. The prince finds himself far from home and full of sorrow, when he encounters a fox. He asks the fox to play with him, in hopes it will cheer him up.

Still from the Netflix film The Little Prince Still from the Netflix film The Little Prince

The fox replies that he cannot play with him, as he is not tamed:

“What does that mean—‘tame’?” asked the little prince.

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties. To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…

The fox helps the prince see that there may be a million other foxes, but his fox is one in a million.

Too often we look at the world with fuzzy eyes. We never see the budding blade of grass, only the vast green field. All becomes one in the knitted blanket of our environment.

We see the forest, but miss the trees.

By noticing and naming, loving and taming, we can light stars in the darkness of our night sky. It is up to us to give meaning to every bird whose song serenades us, every tree whose branch shades us, and every rose whose scent seduces us.

As the wise little prince tells us, ”It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”