Trials and Transformations

Trials and Transformations

Photograph by Pete Oxford / Nature PL


words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers a holistic look at life on Earth, seen from above.

“My soul would sing of metamorphoses.

But since, o gods, you were the source of these

bodies becoming other bodies, breathe

your breath into my book of changes: may

the song I sing be seamless as its way

weaves from the world’s beginning to our day.”



Last year, I wrote a newsletter about butterflies and the process of complete metamorphosis. In case you missed that edition, it goes a little something like this: a caterpillar will eat and molt many times until it has accumulated enough weight, at which point a hormone is released that tells the insect to stop moving and ingesting. It then instructs all the creature’s cells to self-destruct and liquify—everything save a set of imaginal discs, which will form its chrysalis and key body parts, including its wings. Then, when the time is right, the butterfly will emerge.


In that newsletter, I likened complete metamorphosis to the pandemic, drawing parallels to the chrysalis of quarantine. There have been many moments since then that I have thought might be our moment of emergence, when this traumatic and transformative experience might be over. Not only has the pandemic continued, but in that time, I have come to realize that the chrysalis was never quarantine. It’s much more expansive than that. As you and I both know, we are at a turning point in the evolution of our species—and by association, all life on Earth.


It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly two years since the pandemic began. In that time, it seems as if the only thing that has emerged is a stark divide between those who are holding on to the world that was and those who understand that it’s time to let it go—that our previous notion of “normal” was anything but. Nowhere was this contrast more apparent than at the microcosm of COP26, inside of which world “leaders” were hard at work finding ways to keep our world the same while the activists outside were shouting all the ways it needs to change.


The thing about evolution is that it can’t be stopped, and delaying it only causes destruction. Being trans, I know this firsthand. I spent almost 30 years denying who I was—until I reached the point where I couldn’t carry on. The weight of who I wasn’t became too great, greater than the fear I had of becoming who I always knew I was. Deep down, where my imaginal discs were: the blueprints of my evolution, what will one day become my wings. And so, over the past few years, across more moments than I can count, I liquified. I died so that I could live.


I’m telling you about my transition not just because it’s Transgender Awareness Week, but because I want you to know that transformation is possible. I want you to know that it is possible for one world to end and for another to begin. Like our leaders, I tried to hold on to the past. I resisted my metamorphosis for as long as I could until I reached my tipping point, much like our planet. In many ways, I think that’s what drives me to do this work; I empathize with the Earth’s story. (It’s not lost on me that toxic masculinity has repressed us both, either.)


Of all the forms of transphobia that are weaponized against us, the one I have always found to be the most perplexing and pernicious is the idea that we are unnatural. From clown and cuttlefish to gynandromorphic birds and butterflies, endless examples exist of species that change their sex or challenge our binary view of it. Nature is an engine of evolution. I often say that trans people are merely embodiments of the many transformations we all go through in life. Transphobia, then, has little to do with us and everything to do with humanity’s age-old fear of change.


Much like our world, I am still in my chrysalis. But I am starting to see slivers of what might emerge. And more importantly, I am learning to embrace the messy magnificence of metamorphosis itself. We often imagine evolution to be a linear process, but homosapiens appeared and existed alongside neanderthals for millennia. Maybe we are witnessing the birth of a new species, one that is evolving out of self-destructive extractivism and rigid individualism toward a way of being that embodies holistic collectivism and ecological harmony. If we are, it won’t be easy. Transformation never is. But I can tell you this much: It’s worth it.

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