Giving Back


words by willow defebaugh

Photograph by VIVEK VADOLIYA

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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“Stop asking yourself what you want, what you desire, what interests you. Ask yourself instead: What has been given to me? Ask: What do I have to give back? Then give it.”

Cheryl Strayed

Nothing in nature exists in isolation. Whether we are cognizant of it or not, we are in relationship with all life around us. In the age of the Anthropocene, our webs of connection extend even beyond borders, our actions affecting other life forms far and wide. Scientifically speaking, relationships between organisms are categorized into five types of symbiosis: mutualism, commensalism, competition, parasitism, and predation.


Mutualism refers to a relationship in which both organisms benefit. A common example in the natural world is the relationship between flowers and bees. Bees gather nectar from flowers, which they turn into sustenance. As they do so, their hairy coats catch pollen, which they carry to the next flower, allowing the plants to reproduce. Even the human body is an arena of mutualism; the bacteria in your gut help you digest your food, and get nourished in return.


Of course, not all relationships are positive. Some are neutral, such as commensalistic bonds in which one species benefits by living on, with, or on top of another species, but causes no harm to the host (barnacles that travel around on whales are one example). And then there are parasitic relationships, in which one organism benefits at the expense of the other without killing them. These are nature’s vampires: tapeworms, ticks, fleas, and so on.


When one species benefits at the expense of another by killing it, the relationship becomes an example of predation rather than parasitism (it’s worth noting that predators are usually larger than their prey, while parasites are often smaller). The final form of symbiosis is competition—what happens when organisms compete for shared resources. This can occur between members of the same species as well as members of different ones.


So, what about the relationships between humanity and the rest of nature? Which categories of symbiosis do those fall into? The answer, of course, is manifold. There are Indigenous communities that display mutualism with the Earth, there are those who attempt to leave no footprint and be commensalistic, and there are systems like colonialism and white supremacy that prove both predatory and parasitic. And of course, there is competition, magnified by capitalism. What makes human beings so unique, though, is that we have the ability to make conscious choices when it comes to what we want our relationships to be.


For Atmos Volume 05: Hive, we invited experts of different holistic medicinal systems to share their wisdom. By definition, holistic disciplines approach wellness from a place of interdependence. They go deeper than treating the symptoms, exploring the relationships that underlie them. A common thread among these practices is that true healing comes from harmony—a realignment with the rest of nature. The healing of humanity and the healing of the Earth must be mutual, a mending of the bond between them.


The systems that many of us have grown up in have taught us to see the world through a lens of acquisition and opportunity, parasitism and predation: what we can get. How often do we think about what we have been given? Regardless of who you are or where you come from, if you are reading these words, you have been given breath in your lungs, blood in your veins. You have been given the most precious gift of all: life. Isn’t that worth giving back to?

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