Photograph by Cruz Valdez / Trunk Archive


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.

Photograph by Cruz Valdez / Trunk Archive
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“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

Marianne Williamson

Two years ago, I brought an Epipremnum aureum into my home. At the recommendation of the floraphile who entrusted it to me, I placed the plant (commonly known as a pothos) on a shadowed shelf in the darkest corner of my bedroom. In the time since, I have watched it stretch its tendrils in every direction—some as far as eight feet—searching for something I couldn’t see. It wasn’t until recently I realized the answer was all around me: It was growing toward the light.


This pothos was demonstrating a phenomenon found in many plants (as well as some fungi) known as phototropism. According to Oxford Languages, phototropism refers to “the orientation of a plant or other organism in response to light, either toward the source of light (positive phototropism) or away from it (negative phototropism).” Both forms of phototropism are often found in the same plant: Its shoots will grow toward the light, while its roots move away from it.


Around the same time that pothos started its sprawl across my walls, my own journey was beginning to unfold: accepting myself and coming out as trans nonbinary. While we may not think of it in such terms, queer folks are intimately familiar with phototropism. Too many of us are forced to live our lives in closets, contoured by shadow. We stay there for safety as well as comfort, counterintuitive as that may sound. We dig our roots deeper into the dark, clinging to our confines out of a fear that is instilled in us, that is not our own: fear of our own fulfillment.


Of course, there’s another part of us that’s equally integral to the queer experience: the part that reaches toward realization. In a world that teaches us to fear our own power, a world that would keep us stowed in shadow, we grow—sometimes immeasurably, incrementally—toward the light of liberation. We stretch ourselves in the direction of sustenance. We unfurl, extending beyond the limitations placed on us. Against all odds, we become ourselves. And as we do, we illuminate the way for others.


It took me until today to learn that this particular species of tropical plant is often called the devil’s ivy because it’s nearly impossible to kill, able to seek out light in even the most unlikely of places. This pride month, amidst an unprecedented onslaught of attacks on the trans community, I think of my siblings around the world who have found a way to do the same. I remind myself of the resiliency of nature, the strength of which courses through our veins, like vines unwinding from some unknown center, reaching both outward and in.


At a certain stage of our development, we start to understand that both positive and negative phototropism serve a purpose. While our roots reach into the dark, the experiences they draw from have nourished us too, in their way. They pushed us toward expansion, to grow toward the light. Holding both of these awarenesses at the same time is perhaps the most challenging aspect of being a consciously awake individual in a universe full of undeniable suffering and sublimity.


I might argue that phototropism is core to what makes us all human, what connects us. Never would I have imagined when bringing that pothos into my home what else the near future would hold for humanity. That I would spend a year alone with it, often staring at the wall. That we all would. That we would take it day by day, crawling our way toward a source that seemed at times far away, and others just out of reach. That one day we would touch the sun again.

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