Body Work


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.

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“Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another.”

Bessel A. van der Kolk

In my early twenties, two friends of mine died within a short time period. As is often the case when people first experience the death of a loved one, I spent years trying to make sense of their passing—particularly the why. That journey led me, at one point, to a retreat for healing. On that trip, I opened up to my teacher about the question I was struggling with. She confessed that she couldn’t tell me why, but that she could tell me about a theory she had read—that we were all cells in a larger body. And that in bodies, cells are constantly dying and being born, part of a larger cycle that they may never be able to fully understand. 


Years later, I would come to learn the name of this theory: the Gaia Hypothesis. In the 1970s, chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis introduced the idea to Western science, which posits that the Earth is one complex, self-regulating system composed of many interacting parts. In other words, a body. I say “introduced” because they by no means invented it; Indigenous cultures have spoken of this concept for centuries. Lovelock and Margulis chose the name Gaia for the primordial Greek goddess who personifies the Earth. And while scientists may never be able to prove this theory, here are a few things we do know about the body.


We know that the body stores trauma. As psychiatrist Bessel A. van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.” Similar to how we are just now experiencing the effects of pollution emitted decades ago, many are now waking up to the trauma that disaster capitalism and extractivism have had not only on our planet but on our own wellbeing.


We also know that the body is oriented toward healing. When faced with an injury, in most cases, the body will try to repair itself. The very cells that make you up are constantly regenerating themselves at varying speeds. The cells that line your stomach—constantly exposed to digestive acid—regenerate every few days. Your skin cells regenerate every few weeks. Your white blood cells regenerate every week, while your red cells last a couple of months. Even your bone cells regenerate every ten years. All of this is to keep you healthy—to keep you alive.


And we know that the body’s health and healing are dependent on many parts working in harmony. Have you ever taken a moment to contemplate how miraculously complex the systems that keep you breathing are? You have lungs that inhale oxygen, which passes into the blood, and is then distributed to the rest of the body by the heart. You have a digestive system that turns compounds into nourishment; you have a liver and kidneys that keep toxins out. All of these pieces with unique, individual roles to play—and yet all of them indistinguishably “you.”


Just as trauma impacts our sense of perception, the continued traumas of war, colonization, and ecocide we are witnessing play out in the world today propagate the Western mindset of separation, directly in opposition to holism. In the U.S. especially, everything is about the individual. As we have seen in the case of the body, individuality is important; imagine if you had a body full of only lungs. But that individuality must be in service of the whole. As van der Kolk continues: “our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being.”


It is easy to isolate ourselves in the face of so much suffering. But as the pandemic and recent climate disasters continue to make abundantly clear, the well-being of ourselves, one another, and the planet are inextricably linked. And what is healing if not the undoing of separation? Like the closing of a wound, perhaps we are all just finding our way back to ourselves and each other. Perhaps the Gaia Hypothesis is neither theory nor metaphor, but an invitation—to see all of this work through a lens of holism, rather than merely activism. Perhaps there is only one question that really matters, and that is: Are you ready to heal?

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