words by willow defebaugh
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
“Everything must break open in order to live.”
Germination starts with a seed—a single enclosed entity, an embryo waiting to grow, a world wrapped in itself. The library Britannica defines the process as “the sprouting of a seed, spore, or other reproductive body, usually after a period of dormancy. The absorption of water, the passage of time, chilling, warming, oxygen availability, and light exposure may all operate in initiating the process.”
As is customary with this newsletter, I’d like to take that natural process and place it in a different context: the year we have had. Let’s start at the beginning—the period of dormancy. Part of why 2020 has been so unimaginably difficult is that it involved the very fabric of the only world we have ever known. It has been shocking to realize that our existence can completely change almost overnight: that life itself can lay in waiting, ready to unexpectedly evolve.
Of all the ingredients of germination, oxygen availability is perhaps the most obviously relevant to 2020. First, there is the virus that has choked our way of life and clogged the lungs of our loved ones. Second, there is the largest civil rights movement of our time, sparked by three words heard round the world: “I can’t breathe.” And then there is the intersection of the two: what the pandemic has revealed about environmental racism, how disproportionate pollution has left communities of color at risk.
When it comes to absorption of water, we saw plenty this year in the form of an unprecedented storm season—undoubtedly brought on by temperature change, the warming of our world. In this week’s editions of The Frontline, Yessenia Funes eloquently explored the part that fire has played this year. I couldn’t help but think of giant sequoias, who rely on fire to germinate: the heat opens their seed cones, and the fire itself clears the Earth for the seeds to grow.
As for light exposure, I can’t imagine a better phrase for what the final year of the Trump administration or the election has shown us: everything that has been lurking in the shadows of this country. As James Baldwin famously said, “nothing can be changed until it is faced”; the only bright side of what has come to light is that we now know what we’re up against. The election and events leading up to it also revealed what we are capable of accomplishing when we come together and organize.
Which brings us to our final ingredient of initiation: the passage of time. Who hasn’t wished the pandemic would end already, or that we could halt climate change and dismantle white supremacy overnight? Indeed, this year has taught us many things, but chief among them is patience. I cannot tell you that all of the hardships we have faced were for a reason. Even if I could, I wouldn’t, because no amount of lives lost would be worth it. What I can tell you is that our world ended this year—the world we knew. I can tell you that worlds much smaller than ours end every day, and that what begins with a fracture gives way to a flourishing.
When I look back on this year, it will always be the year I realized that my name was not my name, that it never was. The year I realized that I had been living in a shell, that the walls around me were no longer keeping me safe, that they were closing me in. The year I realized that I have always been a seed—that we all are, that it is up to each and every one of us to let ourselves break open and bloom. Again, and again, and again.