Everything but the forest

``A single daffodil,'' I insisted to my students this morning, ``at times will outweigh the hillful. One thorny oyster shell can represent the whole beach.'' While I may have come up with this to illustrate the crystallized power of a poem, or to persuade someone to cut out the deadwood in a story or article in order to make a single image or theme grow stronger and more visible (advice which I have trouble enough following myself), tonight I'm using this notion as excuse for my own and other dilemmas. . . .

Students, professors, friends, strangers, keep asking me to analyze totalities, discern directions, conjure a broad-scale whither-goeth-the-world diagnosis even if it concerns only their work or lives.

I have trouble enough figuring out my own. Although I try (daily and usually in vain) to avoid such banal details as filling out forms, balancing books, and darning socks, in life and work I'm better at seeing trees -- and bushes, buds, blades of wild onion, and ants in the grass, as well as aluminum can tabs and candy wrappers strewn in the weeds -- than forests.

What a relief it would be to be blessed with Olympian insight/outsight/oversight . . .as well as hindsight and foresight. . . . Is this why one wants to be a writer: to have that chance for omniscience, however fictional? In fact, I wallow in my own subjectivities. . . .

I know people who must have been born objective.

Or at least they develop their capacity for overview, take lit-crit courses, become reviewers or lawyers or economists or philosophers. All my mentors and models and most other people I encounter appear, at least, to have the capacity to Think Big, to analyze The Broad Picture, while keeping track of details. . . . (Or they hire wives and secretaries to handle those, while they pursue their forestry.)

Give my friend Anatole a forest, for instance, and he will jog around it, count the number and species of trees within it, perhaps calculate branches and even trim deadwood. . . . True, if I ask him whether a crocus is out yet, he is not quite sure.

Anatole must find my narrowness of scope, my solipsistic relationship to the rest of the world, boring, even appalling.

He is too polite to say so, often. And the next day he may bring me a bunch of daffodils.

Perhaps someday I'll be like Mt. Fuji in the wintertime, when all the humid clouds and tropic mists dissolve or blow away to some other mountain range, and the cooled-off volcano has clear vision. And more visibility.

Meanwhile, even when overflying jungles, peering down at all that impenetrable malachite foliage, I still look for the one scarlet ginger flower aflame at the base of a banyan tree, although I may note only the rusted canteens of lost soldiers, whose elusive paths I cannot follow. The whole jungle is too tangled and expansive for me to encompass, much less to hack through with my Swiss Army knife or dull machete.

``Which is why,'' I tell my students sadly, ``I cannot help you very much.''

Which may be why some of them, in self-defense, are forced to develop their own critical capacities, judicious oversights.

And they do.

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