Being Able to See the Forest For the Trees

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18 Mar 2009

When we think of the earliest explorers of our fledgling country, we tend to think of rugged adventurers of the Daniel Boone genre, people who would kill a bear with their bare hands and then eat its raw flesh for dinner, feeding the leftover scraps to their pet wolves. Unbeknownst to many is the fact that these intrepid fellows were preceded by a far gentler group of souls. Botanists were often the first to go forth from the colonies southward to Florida, and west to the Mississippi River. These kindred spirits roamed the forests of Appalachia, the grassy plains of Alabama, and the marshy wetlands of Florida and Louisiana. They weren’t looking for gold, furs, or Indian scalps, they were looking for rhododendrons, hydrangea, azalea, and ostrich fern. And plants they found. Of the approximately 800 plants discovered in America during the colonial period, nearly half were found by just a few of these early botanists.

To be totally candid, not all of them did it with the lofty intention of introducing the world to yet another leafy species. Some of them were in it for the gobs of money that could be made by sending seedlings, bulbs, and baby plants back to Europe where wealthy individuals and the royalty collected exotic plants. This source of money was discovered accidentally by John Bartram, the father of both American botany and William Bartram, the most prolific of American naturalists for generations to come. (To this day John’s garden is the oldest botanical garden in the US.)

John, a devout Quaker, had no formal education in botany, couldn’t read Latin, and didn’t understand the Linnaean classification system responsible for naming organisms (it helps us differentiate between Prunus cerasus, the sour cherry, and Prunus avium, the sweet cherry). But he did have an eye for all things autotrophic, and he began his botany career by producing herbal remedies for people who either couldn’t reach doctors or couldn’t afford them. In a fortuitous letter to a Peter Collinson, a fellow Quaker in London, he mentioned his findings. Peter offered to pay him handsomely for any plants he could send back to the motherland, and a thirty six year relationship began. Peter eventually became an agent of sorts for John, at one point handling orders from over fifty European collectors, all desperate to get their hands on any new plants from camellia, to catalpa, or Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper).

As the amount of money available for new species became recognized, the forests of the Appalachian Mountains became filled with botanists, opportunists, and sack wielding meshuganas grabbing everything they could and sending it to Europe. From just one hillside, John Lyon harvested 3,600 saplings of Bigleaf Magnolia, a tree that, true to its name, can produce leaves that are three feet long by one foot wide. Another explorer returned from a several year long expedition with over 50,000 specimens! These botanists were able to earn a fortune for their efforts – we have records of people netting close to ₤1,000 in a single year (the equivalent of ₤1.28 million pounds using average earnings from that period). For the money and glory they had to brave the elements, bears, panthers, hostile Indians, and the risk of picking poisonous plants that would leave them looking like tomatoes, and feeling like they were vacationing on the surface of the sun.

Perhaps the most instructive story of that era is one that involved William Bartram. After his father earned the title “Botanist to King George III” in 1765, father and son journeyed to the Floridas, newly acquired by the British in 1763. Amazed by the vast diversity of plant life in the Everglades and wetlands, William returned there alone after his father’s death. Determined to bring back as many plants as he could, he embarked on one of the longest expeditions ever, a five year journey in the wilderness of America without any contact with the outside world. He didn’t stop at outposts, didn’t come home for a short visit and a slice of his wife’s famous apple pie, didn’t even check into the cities near his route for a few days of civilization. He was a man on a mission, and he wouldn’t allow any distractions.

So for five years he roamed, starting in Pennsylvania and traveling to the Everglades and back, fighting off rattlesnakes, copperheads, panthers, blistering heat, and biting blizzards. He collected thousands of seeds and bulbs, and hundreds of saplings, lovingly protecting his precious treasures from the elements that could destroy them. What sustained him through the low moments was the image of how they would hail him back in England, likely knighting him, and giving him his father’s title Botanist to King George III. But upon emerging from the forests, he saw a new banner hanging from the flagpoles, he heard people talking of war, and there were very few men in town to whom he could announce his success. Imagine his chagrin when he discovered that America was in the midst of a war with Britain, that there was no business contact between the two countries, and that he had lost his patrons! There would be no great riches, no knighthood, no fame and fortune, nothing.

What is striking about this story is the idea that someone can be so absorbed in a particular goal that they neglect to regularly insure that it is still worth pursuing, and that they are still meeting that goal. This happens not only to people in the deep forests of the Appalachian Mountains, but can crop up in any human relationship.

Take, for example, the father who is so fully immersed in the career track he embarked on to support his family, he ends up sacrificing his family to support his career track. Or the mother who is so busy making sure her children get every possible extracurricular activity, she is drowned in a flurry of ballet, hockey, piano, gymnastics, math club, and lacrosse to the point where she can’t possibly focus on being a mother. Look at the college student who is so busy cramming, writing papers, and fighting to maintain the 4.0, he forgets that the goal of the college years is not to simply amass knowledge, but to have a transformational period of self development and identity formation.

A common example of this malaise which transcends age, gender, or social station, is a situation in which one is so busy living life that he forgets mankind’s primary role – to build a relationship with G-d, and constantly elevate himself and the world around him.

One of the most important things we can do to ensure that we stay on course and that our course is going where we want to go, is to frequently pause for “station identification.” In Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s eighteenth century magnum opus, the Mesillat Yesharim, this idea is fleshed out. “One who wishes to watch over himself must take two things into consideration. First he must consider what constitutes the true good that a person should choose and the true evil that he should flee from; and second, he must consider his actions, to discover whether they appertain to the category of good or to that of evil. (Mesillat Yesharim, Chap. 3)”

Not only does the Ramchal tell us that we need to determine if our goals are good and if our actions are moving us closer to them, he even tells us how often we should make this recalculation. “I see a need for a person to carefully examine his ways and to weigh them daily in the manner of the great merchants who constantly evaluate all of their undertakings so that they do not miscarry. He should set aside definite times and hours for this weighing so that it is not a fortuitous matter, but one which is conducted with the greatest regularity; for it yields rich returns.”

A wise man once said, “Some learn from their mistakes, but the wise learn from the mistakes of others.” Let us learn from the lesson of William Bartram, a man who lost five years of endeavor by never pausing for re-evaluation. Let us set aside five minutes a day to review our goals, and see if we’re moving toward or away from them. Five minutes is only .35% of our day, but we can use it to make the other 99.65% so much more effective and meaningful.

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.