Photograph by Tom Brannigan / Trunk Archive

Down to Earth

Words by Willow Defebaugh

What goes up must come down. What can gravity teach us about our current climatic and cultural crises?

“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.”

Sir Isaac Newton

So the story goes, sometime in 1665 or 1666, Sir Isaac Newton watched an apple fall from a tree and wondered why. Why, when we fall, do we fall straight down? Why are we forever bound to the Earth? Newton concluded that there is a force of attraction that exists between all massive bodies, the same one that tethers our feet to the ground and the moon in our sky. His theory formed the basis of our modern scientific understanding of gravity.


Hundreds of years later, in 1915, Albert Einstein expanded upon Newton’s laws when he published his theory of general relativity. Einstein explained that objects with mass have gravity because they bend the fabric of our universe—also known as spacetime, the three dimensions of space (length, width, height) combined with the fourth dimension of time. Einstein identified that the laws of physics operate in a dimension where space and time are one. Hence, spacetime.


Planets, being as massive as they are, create gravitational wells; they bend spacetime around them, causing gravity to occur. It’s a difficult concept to wrap our minds around, because we think in three, rather than four dimensions. A common example used to explain this is a trampoline. If you put something heavy on a trampoline, it would cause the trampoline to “bend,” resulting in anything else on its surface to move toward the object. The more massive it is, the greater its gravitational pull—hence why the sun has stronger gravity than the Earth.


When the subject of gravity first fell into my mind, I was on a walk through the woods. I was reflecting on the importance of setting aside our screens and grounding down. The conversations currently dominating cultural discourse driven by recent legislation are massive. Women’s rights, queer and trans rights, systemic racism, continued colonization, gun violence, religious indoctrination, environmental catastrophe—these subjects have their own gravitational wells. 


So what do we do when it feels like we are being pulled in many different directions at once? To start, we can step back and realize that this is a distortion; all these issues are connected, for the same forces underlie them all. There is an insidious idea that intersectionality and inclusivity are somehow at odds with progress, but this is a lie that warps the very fabric of our universe. Time spent in nature reminds me of this: like gravity, everything acts on everything else.


When the world feels overwhelming, we need to take moments to recenter ourselves, to stop and feel the sun on our skin and the ground under our feet. It is during these moments that I return to what I know to be true. I know that what goes up must come down. I know that everything, even empires, eventually fall. I know that freeing others will never make me less free. I know that we are tethered to this planet just as we are tethered to one another, our fates forever intertwined.

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