words by willow defebaugh
photograph by alexandra von fuerst
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.
“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
While science, art, and journalism—the three disciplines at the heart of what we do here at Atmos—might seem worlds apart, they all share a common thread. In their own distinct ways, they are all rooted in questions and curiosity: the unknown. Science studies phenomena to uncover explanations for the previously inexplicable. Art adventures into uncharted territory by way of the imagination to create something new. Journalism, meanwhile, investigates the unknown in order to understand and craft a story.
Of course, our desire to define the unknown extends beyond science, art, and journalism. Throughout history, humankind has attempted to give form to the unfathomable. Perhaps it’s human nature. Perhaps it’s Western egocentrism, an attempt to assert control. In our recent feature “Mythos and Mycology,” biologist Merlin Sheldrake told journalist Whitney Bauck why he prefers questions to answers: “I like the space created by open questions. When you’ve answered a question, you’ve sort of extinguished it. From this point of view, uncertainties are food for further curiosity rather than being terrible problems.”
Sheldrake went on to explain how this mindset relates to queerness, which is inherently rooted in questioning and existing outside of ascribed definitions: “Queer theory explores nonbinary ways of dealing with identity, so it can help get us out of dichotomies that can be paralyzing. In the case of symbiotic relationships and lichen, it encourages researchers to think of identity as a question rather than an answer known in advance. If you don’t presume to know what this organism is before you start investigating it—if the very nature of its being is a question—then you get to some interesting places.”
Whenever I have to explain my nonbinary identity or pronouns to anyone, I often ask how they would refer to someone across the street if they were not able to identify their gender. And that’s the point: We shouldn’t be assuming anyone’s gender based on their presentation. We should be treating identity itself as a question, both for each other and ourselves. How else can we allow for our own evolution? When we become fixated on labels, on “answers,” we set ourselves up for identity crises if and when we eventually change our understandings of ourselves.
Queer ecology—a transdisciplinary body of practices rooted in queer theory and environmental study—reminds us what they both have in common: wildness. To be queer is to live outside the confines of the clearly defined, to give oneself over to the expansive nature of the unknown. As author bell hooks once described it: “queer as not about who you’re having sex with, that can be a dimension of it, but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”
In another feature we published this week, Two-Spirit Anishinaabe writer Adrienne Huard writes of the colonial erasure of queer, Indigenous identities. They explore this through the lens of liminality, and the many aspects of identity and nature that do not fit into Western binaries: “Liminality disrupts settler colonial ideologies through a dissolution of linear time, hierarchies, and certainty. There’s strength in not understanding, in questioning, or in remaining unfixed. Because the Earth, the waters, and the entities that exist on these lands are perpetually in motion and ever-changing—nothing remains static.”
In following nature’s lead, we can learn to live in the question and not the answer—though it isn’t easy. Most of us are conditioned to think we always need to solve the puzzle. And in doing so, we forsake liminality for limitation. But what of the problems that do need solving, the ones that drive so much of our work? At the risk of arriving at an answer, I suspect that, like most things, it’s nonbinary. That maybe, as Rainer Maria Rilke suggests, it’s possible to live our questions and allow space for answers to arrive along the way, even if we know that they will likely change. That for all we know, we can still surrender to the mystery.