words by willow defebaugh
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.
Every week for the past year and a half, I have done my best to tell the story of a select aspect of the natural world and weave it together with the collective human experience for this newsletter with the hopes that we might learn a thing or two from Mother Earth. As today marks The Overview’s 100th edition, I thought I would offer another kind of overview, one that’s a bit more personal: the story of Atmos and how I came to be writing these words.
In fall 2016, I was suffering from what I can only describe as a crisis of spirit. At the time, I was working in New York City at an art and culture magazine that was as creative as it was cutthroat. Donald Trump had just been elected, what I would later identify as gender dysphoria was beginning to emerge, and the climate catastrophe was showing no sign of slowing down. Like many, I was filled with an existential dread—a dread that eventually led me to leave my job and pursue a path of contemplation in an effort to understand why I am here.
While steeping myself in spiritual studies and working freelance writing and editing jobs, I met my Atmos co-founder Jake Sargent, who was similarly exhausted by our culture of climate denialism and wondering what it was all for. Just when I thought I was leaving publishing behind in pursuit of a more ethereal purpose, we decided to start a magazine to tell stories about the environment through a lens of creativity, marrying my lifelong love of storytelling and nature.
If we want to change the story, we have to change the storytelling.
Our founding principle for the publication was clear from the start: If we want to change the story, we have to change the storytelling. For us, that meant exploring the ecological crisis from a human perspective, as well as expanding who was doing the storytelling—journalists and photographers, yes, but also creative writers, poets, philosophers, designers, activists, and artists. We chose Atmos as a name because, like the atmosphere, stories are what we all share.
Ether refers to both the upper region of our atmosphere and the fifth element, representing spirit and the space that connects all things—including our stories, as I have come to realize. With our first issue, Neo-Natural, we set out to bridge the space we have created between ourselves and nature by way of inspiration—a word connected to spiritus, Latin for breath. With our second, Latitude, we wanted to tell stories of a global nature: the larger atmosphere we all inhabit. In our third, Flourish/Collapse, we studied the dualism of the expansion and contraction that breathes life into being. In our fourth, Cascade, we looked at consequence and corresponding action. Our fifth issue, coming next week, explores the spirit of collaboration.
Early on, a part of me still longed to retreat and live a life in study and service of something larger than myself. It took me surrendering my idea of what that looked like to realize that I already was. To see what was right in front of me: that the climate crisis is a crisis of spirit. To see that, like me, it was non-binary. That the years spent trying to find myself in an industry that was only interested in going skin-deep, the inward journey and the odd jobs that followed, my transition—everything was a part of it.
Having an overview requires a rising up so that we can widen our perspective and see the larger story in which we all have a role to play, informed by our unique spirits—our passions and points of view, the paths we have walked and all we have learned along the way. Ether might exist above the clouds, but it also exists within us. So if you’re searching for what your part is in all of this and what you can bring to the movement, my answer is simple: yourself.