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.
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Kintsugi is a Japanese art form dating back to the 15th century that involves repairing broken pottery in ways that honor and emphasize the cracks—often using gold or silver to piece it back together. The practice itself is a composite of two integral concepts: mottaini, the regret one feels when anything goes to waste; and mushin, the importance of accepting change. Kintsugi is a reminder that while we can’t undo the wrongs of the past or perfectly restore what we once had, we can still make something beautiful.
Similarly, I once read that being trans involves piecing together the shards of a reflection that we scattered in order to survive. Over the course of the past few years, I have operated under that mindset. I have been busy retracing my steps, recollecting all the shattered glass so that I might one day see myself whole again. In many ways, I think that conception mirrors what our world has been going through. We have been seeing everything that looks broken, trying to figure out how we are going to piece it back together.
This quest we seem to have found ourselves on involves a certain temporal tension: a tug of war between our past and future. We are both attempting to restore what was while also trying to create something new, so that history does not repeat itself. We see this tensity in the environmental community as well—especially when it comes to climate solutions. Should we be pursuing tech-based solutions to solve the climate crisis, or should we be returning to traditional ecological practices? Is it about going forward or backward?
This question goes back to the beginning of Atmos. The very first interview I conducted for the magazine was with the artist ANOHNI in 2018. She told me how she had been invited to sing at a TED conference in front of all of the big tech companies including Google and Apple: “I sang ‘Another World’ for them and then I said, I’m hearing everyone talking about what progress we need to make technologically in order to solve the world’s problems. But I haven’t heard one person mention the possibility of retreat. They were just mortified. My name actually disappeared from the TED website a few hours later.”
The idea of retreat has gained momentum within environmentalism, which has become increasingly intersectional thanks to the work of many on the ground activists. For example, more and more people are waking up to the importance of giving land back to Indigenous peoples. Just this week, The New York Times reported that more than 500 acres of redwood forest has been returned to the stewardship of 10 Native tribes. But the landback movement is about more than just turning over land. As Atmos contributor Josué Rivas recently told me over the phone: “To me, LANDBACK also means all of us returning to the land.”
I am a strong believer in returning to traditional wisdom. I am also wary of any binary. The scale of our problems requires scalable solutions, which technology can help with—especially if guided by traditional ecological knowledge (a technology in its own right). For all we complain about technological progress, it has also improved our lives in many ways. It has allowed us to be connected here by this newsletter. In the realm of medicine alone, it has saved countless lives. Technology has allowed me to become more authentically myself.
We might not be able to return to the past, but it still holds clues to our future: a holistic picture of our world that might take lifetimes to repair. In mending my own mirror, I have come to accept that it might always have cracks. But that doesn’t mean that I am broken, and neither is the Earth. Only the way we are seeing it and ourselves are. As I look in my reflection, I am learning to see the fractures not as faults, but as a web—lines leading me both back to myself and to someone new. To the woman I have always been, and the one I am still becoming.