The following piece was collected from a seventy-three year-old American man over a meal, celebrating an anniversary. The man will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant”, and I the “Collector”.
Informant: “I have a saying.”
Collector: “What is it?”
Informant: “I used to hear it in German from my grandmother, sometimes. It goes, ‘You can’t see the forest for all the trees.’”
Collector: “What does it mean?”
Informant: “It means you have to see the bigger picture. Hmm…I’ll have to find you the German version.”
Du siehst den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht.
You don’t see the forest for all the trees.
Can’t see the forest for the trees.
The Informant heard this from his grandmother, said not directly to him but overheard when she would speak with the Informant’s mother. He remembers it because he says he was always confused by it as a child. The Informant understands it now to mean that sometimes one gets lost in the details when all he or she needed to do was step back and look at the bigger picture.
I was in agreement with the Informant and his interpretation of the German proverb when he explained what he understood it to mean. However, I also believe that the proverb could be referring to a broader scale, when looking at how people themselves function. It makes sense to me to also consider the trees as representing humans and the forest as a larger goal, or greater good. People get so caught up in themselves that they might be unable to properly understand something that is larger than they are.
For another version of this proverb, please see p. 187 of Eliot Oring’s (1986) edition of Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction in F. A. de Caro’s chapter on “Riddles and Proverbs”.
Bronner, Simon J., et al. Folk Groups And Folklore Genres: An Introduction. Edited by Elliott Oring, University Press of Colorado, 1986.