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[PODCAST] How To Vibe with Nature Wherever You Are

14 Mar 2021

Have you vibed out with a tree lately? Whenever you notice yourself feeling untethered, spending time among trees will help guide you back to where you need to be. It’s self-care, it’s being well, to be among trees. To breathe in the fresh air, to hear birdsong, of course—but also to just vibe out in the forest!

Our guest today is Willow Defebaugh, editor in chief of Atmos, a digital platform and biannual magazine that explores the connection between climate and culture. Their work is always insightful, often full of deep quotes and imperative facts about the earth, its energy, and always bringing it full spiral back to our pure human experience—and for this episode, they've joined host Alyssa Shapiro in conversation about connecting with nature wherever you are.

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Hosted by Alyssa Shapiro

Edited by Manna Zel

Produced by Manna Zel + Alyssa Shapiro

Theme music by YTTP co-founder Greg Gonzalez + Hannah Fernando

Alyssa Shapiro: A few years ago, I had just moved back to LA after spending a couple of months away and the neighborhood I had moved to was kind of devoid of trees and flowers, nature. It was a lot of concrete and blacktop, and that combined with the work that I was doing at the time I was consulting for two clients that were just taking over my life.

I started to feel really disconnected from myself. It wasn't like listening to myself. I wasn't able to hear what I needed. Um, and obviously I was so grateful for that work, but I was so burnt out and I hadn't checked in with myself to know that or understand how to fix it. Um, But I was FaceTiming with my mom and as moms do, she took one look at me and she called me out so quickly. She was like, “You need one thing to feel better: trees.” So she forwarded me an email that she had gotten promoting this mini-retreat in Ojai, California that was centered on forest bathing, and without knowing what that was, I was like, you know what? I love hiking. I love fresh air. Sign me up. But forest bathing isn't hiking. It isn't even walking. It's literally taking in the forest, basking in it, and in Japan where that nature therapy practice has roots, it’s called Shinrin-yoku. So when I arrived in Ojai, to sacred Chumash land, to experience Shinrin-yoku, I was given a task: find a tree that I could form a mutual connection with and just sit there with it, exchanging energy.

The land that we were on had been totally ravaged by fires the season earlier, but I found a tree that had minimal scarring that was in the process of healing itself, and I listened to what I thought we both needed. I put my head on the ground near its roots in child's pose and I stayed that way with my forehead in the dirt for at least an hour.

I remember feeling like the earth and that tree were accepting my burnout, and honestly, a few tears. I was definitely crying; but also I was feeling grateful and I felt like I could send my gratitude to the tree as well, and I felt like the tree was digesting all of that energy for me and sending back energetic nourishment that I couldn't have gotten from anywhere else.

It was the energy of that tree that brought me back to feeling connected, to feeling calm, and it brought me back to me. Whenever I notice myself feeling untethered. I know that spending time among trees will help guide me back to where I need to be. It's wellness and it's self care to be among trees, to breathe in the fresh air, to hear the bird song, of course, but also just to vibe out in the forest today, my guest is Willow Defebaugh, editor in chief of Atmos.

Willow Defebaugh: Atmos is a climate and culture magazine, uh, whose mission is to tell stories is about the environment from a more of a holistic and art centric perspective. 

AS: And Willow is someone whose Instagram posts I genuinely look forward to seeing and reading. Their captions are always insightful, often full of these deep quotes and imperative facts about the earth its energy, and always bringing all of that full spiral back to our pure human experience.

Willow is trans/non-binary and I can't help but feel like there was a spiritual connection between reverence for the earth and reverence for being trans, because in the existence of both, you have alchemy and evolution and nothing is ever in a fixed state, and that is beautiful.

WD: I’ve been working in publishing for about a decade in New York City, and a lot of my background is more working at, um, art and culture magazines and I suppose throughout the kind of decade that I was really working and first moving, having first moved to New York, I was reflecting so much around the development of the climate crisis and why it felt like the story around the climate crisis was always being told in one very particular way. It felt like it was very clinical, it was very data-driven, um, and we have nothing against data, we love data, we love science. It's the heart of everything that we do, and at the same time, we felt like there was this need to talk about what was happening with, um, our world and with the global environment, from a perspective that was more emotional and really related to how we connect to the environment, because at the end of the day, you know, we call it the climate crisis, but really the climate doesn't have a crisis, the climate has a human crisis, and if we're going to change how we're interacting with climate and with the earth, that change has to come from us obviously, and I think if there's any sort of phrase that I could say that really summarizes my work and the more the work that we do with Atmos it's that if we want to change the story, we have to change the storytelling and stories are really at the heart of culture. Our stories have pervaded, so many different cultures and communities throughout history, and they really define what makes culture and what makes a community, and so, so much of Atmos has been about how can we change the stories that we tell about the environment, and so we always come at them from more of a holistic perspective and more of an emotional perspective. Um, and I think that we've, we've really seen in the last like four years, there's been this huge consciousness shift in how we think about, um, the climate crisis, and so much of that has been some of the things that we've seen and the stories that we've seen, um, people sailing across the ocean because they don't want to fly, kids skipping school, all of these things show how, um, well, I suppose they, they talk at the heart because, um, our hearts are really what are at the center of, uh, what needs to change in order for us to see mass change. So, um, that's a bit about kind of my background and I suppose, guiding beliefs when it comes to Atmos. Um, the publication itself has been a really beautiful opportunity for us to kind of bring creatives together and storytellers together and just approach all of this from a totally different perspective. And it's been, uh, one of the greatest and most rewarding experiences, of my career, my life. 

AS: So it was this perspective of looking at climate as having a human crisis, something that you kind of always had around you that you kind of grew up with, or was there a storytelling moment where you had that kind of realization?

WD: That's a great question. Um, I think it has always been with me in a sense, or I suppose, as long as I've been a storyteller and a journalist, because in journalism and in storytelling, we're always conscious of how the narrative is being framed, and so much of framing the narrative comes down to language.

And when we hear “the climate crisis,” it's something that intrinsically feels like it's placed outside of ourselves, right? It's like atmospheric it's somewhere far off and in the distance, but when you rewrite that language to say ‘the human crisis’, or I often say a crisis of consciousness’, well, then it becomes much more personal, it becomes about me, and it's, uh, it's something that I have a direct relationship with. Um, so I suppose how the story is being told is, is something that is always on my mind and it's always been on my mind, um, in kind of broader, more esoteric strokes, I suppose. Um, I think I've always had the perspective or the understanding that nature or the world is always talking to us and when we're actually quiet enough and still enough to listen and perceive it or to witness it, um, that's when so much of the magic happens and that starts to work through us. And I suppose you could say that the earth or nature has gotten louder in the last few years as, um, some of the ecological complexities we are facing are becoming more and more difficult.

And I think more people are, are hearing that. And so, um, yeah, I think it's always been a really, really, uh, a large focal point for me is how to encourage myself and encourage others to just be listening, to be listening to nature. And you can't listen to something unless you're spending time with it, unless you're interacting with it, 

and unless you are finding stillness. 

AS: That's such a good point that we have to create like the pathway and like the space to be able to hear nature. It's not just because of the way we live. Like it's not just necessarily readily accessible for someone who's who feels disconnected or isn't sure how to connect or hear that, because I think it's beyond our five senses.

Like it goes into intuition and it goes into other ways of hearing, listening, and feeling. So how do you access that, if that's not something you've accessed before? 

WD: That is a great question, and, you know, it's something that's been on my mind a lot, especially, um, during quarantine, when so many of us are trapped indoors. Um, I participated in an interview with, uh, Dr. Jane Goodall, uh, sometime, uh, towards the end of last year, and she brought up a really interesting point that you know, interacting with wildlife and observing wildlife doesn't have to mean going to the Congo and studying primates. It can be going to the park and watching birds. And I think part of really integrating the understanding that we are part of nature and that everything is really nature, is that it, it, it might not always be you being in sort of untouched nature or going into the forest or something like that. Nature is still present everywhere that we are, you know, when you're cooking, you're working with ingredients that came from the earth in different ways,  and, um, that's a form of interacting with nature. Personally for myself, um, something that is open for me is I sit with, um, I have a ritual every morning where I sit with tea and I just meditate while drinking tea and in a scenario like that, I'm interacting with the water, I'm interacting with the tea leaves, I'm interacting with my breath, I'm interacting with the heat of the water.

It's a way of coming into contact with all of these different elements of nature, even in my home in Brooklyn and even just that space that I create for myself for half an hour or an hour every morning, that's an opportunity to start my day on a note in which I'm creating space to, um, really commune with, with the elements and with nature. And, you know, there's so many forms that can take from just going for a walk in the morning, or, um, spending time in a park or, you know, what have you. But I think a lot of times it requires us to step outside of, uh, our understanding of what we think nature is or means because not all of us have access to, um, you know, to go for a hike or do some of the things that we traditionally think of as being, uh, in nature.

AS: That's beautiful, it's just about paying really close attention with like love and gratitude and, and being able to look at things as part of like the whole, instead of this like separate outside thing. That's so funny because I, I was away for a couple of days seeing family, and when I came back, this happens every time I leave my apartment, they are always like a lot of spiders when I come back. And at first, I was like, ‘I live here,’ like, what if they're taking over, what's going on? And then I realized like, Oh, while I'm gone, they're totally like taking care of the bugs that felt like they could come out and take over my apartment. So, thank you Wolf Spider that scared me when I turned the corner. Like I'm actually really grateful for like you coming literally out of the woodwork, like this nature that's in my home too, but it took me a while to not be freaked out every time I saw a Wolf Spider, so it takes time. 

WD: I also love spiders. I have such a deep appreciation for them because to me they're just such a beautiful embodiment of, of holism. Like the web that they create and that is spun. And I think of them as just such a symbol of, uh, connectivity, which I think is a good omen for your home, so. 

AS: Well, I love to hear that. For some reason, I feel that they're very like feminine, that they're kind of this like divine feminine energy, and I'm not really sure where that comes from, but I just, yeah. It's, it's funny how you can change your perspective about something that like, you know, traditionally people are like, Oh, it's well, by traditionally, I mean, like in American society, it's, they're like pests it's you don't want that in your house, but

they're actually doing good, and they're part of the system that you're a part of. And therefore it's really an extension of you, of me and the whole, if we're all connected and part of the same thing. Which is something that I like, I've been reading about, um, forests and trees and listening to a lot of like Suzanne Simard and Robin Wall Kimmerer, talk about things like how the forest is the organism. It's not the tree that is a separate organism from the tree next to it. Everything, each tree is connected by the roots by the, um, Oh, am I going to pronounce this correctly? mycorrhizal networks. I think like the fungal networks that kind of connect them and then the mushrooms that cut, you know, and we talked about this in the first episode of the season that decay is an essential part of growth. And so the mushrooms, the mycelium that decay the rotting matter that we don't need anymore and kind of like transform it into new life. Like it's all part of one system, one organism. And we're part of that too. Can you talk a little bit about this? I know that both of those wonderful women or people that you've quoted, whether in Atmos or on your own Instagram.

WD: Yeah, absolutely, two of my heroes, 100%, and, uh, I'm so excited for you to read the next issue of Atmos, because everything that you just described, uh, is basically the theme of, of the issue. Um, I won't reveal the name of it just yet, but, um, yeah, I'm so excited for you to read it and incidentally enough, actually, um, I can show that I have an interview with, um, Suzanne Simard in the issue.

Um, and it was a really, really incredible and enlightening conversation. She has a book coming out next month called finding the mother tree, which is about her discovery. That forests are social creatures and essentially super organisms. Um, and it's, uh, her telling that story alongside her, telling them the story of her own family.

And it's, it's a really beautiful book and was fortunate enough to have, uh, a beautiful conversation with her about it. Um, it's really a theme that comes up over and over again in our next issue, which is essentially where do the boundaries of what we consider as being individual start and end, right?

Like I refer to myself as an individual. I am Willow. And at the same time, I'm composed of, uh, heart and a lung and stomach and all of these different things where, which are actually very different, and, you know, thankfully they're very different because if we were made up of all hearts and all lungs, that would be, that would be a huge problem for ourselves.

So what we think of is ourselves or our identity is really an amalgamation of a number of different things and components. And what we're really talking about is systems theory and systems thinking, and obviously holistic thinking, but. Um, we can apply that same ideology to everything else, right?

There's you Alyssa, and there's me Willow. And also we are both human beings and we are part of this larger, uh, species-wide organism you could say. And that is part of this larger thing, which is what we call the world or the earth. And the more we start to look at things. Uh, as being defined by their relationship to everything else around them, I think the more we start to really reshape our worldview and how we think about things. Um, and there's, there's so much that forests have to teach us about that. And I think one of the things that I've been thinking about a lot in particular in relationship to forest is how much of it is unseen. Like, trees are sharing nutrients with each other, they're sharing carbon with each other, they're sharing energies with each other. And so much of that happens below the earth below the surface. When you first look at a forest, it might just look like a collection of almost homogenous, uh, individuals, trees that you might have difficulty telling apart.

And then the more you sit with it, the more you observe it, you start to understand the complexity, and um, how many different relationships make up that superorganism. Um, and so I think, you know, we're all sort of invited, I think, in this particular moment in time, especially as we come out of the, the pandemic- fingers crossed, uh, to really look at the super organisms that we're all a part of.

To look at the communities that we're all a part of. And I think it's one of the most, um, beautiful and um, contrary aspects of the pandemic that what it really has taught us is how, um, how much we value togetherness and how much we value connection to each other. And yet the way that we learned that was through isolation and through separation and, um, yeah.

I found that that duality to be really interesting. 

AS: You brought it home to humans too, that like we are all, we really are all connected to one another and we need one another to be at our best. And, like you just said the pandemic through isolation has made that very clear. I think to, to a lot of people, to me, it definitely. I want to talk about your gender journey and becoming Willow and choosing Willow as your name and Willow is a tree. And this idea of like reverence for, language reverence and understanding like the importance of language and reverence for the alchemy of nature and of words, and of like the transcendence of gender- all of these things that I think are very connected. Are you open to discussing like your gender journey and how you became Willow?

WD: Yes, 100%. 

AS: Thank you. 

WD: Um, Yeah, I, I suppose, you know, it's like, I, I love to talk about it and you are right to point out that it is so related. You know, it's like none of these things happen in isolation from each other. And you know, my last, the last three years of my life, since really I started working on Atmos have been about studying the nature of everything. And part of that has been studying the nature of myself and understanding the nature of who I am and Um, it's very interesting. I always used to, I felt like I used to joke with friends, like, or they would joke with me rather like that, if I could have my way, I would just become a tree and I had this moment, it didn't even really occur to me until months after I, um, I did share, uh, my name is being Willow.

I was like, Oh, I, I did become a tree in a very, in a very literal way. But, um, I think what I'm very grateful for on my own kind of gender journey that I'm very much still on is that it has been a journey and it has been an evolution, and, you know, I think I, I at some point started thinking about the fact that the way trees grow is they grow from the center and they expand outward, right. And we always think of our growth as being linear. Like we go from point a to point B, but we actually expand outward and we ring outward in our growth. And as we do that, what we become encompasses everything that we were. And I think that's the best way I can describe what this journey has been like for me, it's not, it doesn't feel like I used to not be myself, and now I am. It doesn't feel like I've gone from a starting point to an end point. It's felt like I've just grown into myself. It's felt like an expansion. And I often use that language, gender expansion, um, which I think in some ways is more fitting even than gender journey. But, yeah, yeah, and, you know, I went for a weekend upstate and just spent some time in nature.

And I was walking around through this field and through this forest and I can't even explain it, but it almost felt like the name Willow was just kind of whispered to me and it just made so much sense. And I was like, of course, this is my name, this has always been my name. And I think there's, there's so many things that I love about it.

You know, willow trees are fluid. They move in the breeze, they dance in the wind and they really encapsulate how I feel about gender is that it is something that isn't fixed, um, and how, the way that they, are always growing near water also brings in that element of fluidity to them. And, um, so after I came back from this trip and, uh, I had this kind of revelation about my name, I was just doing, doing more research about Willow trees. And one of the first things that I discovered is that their bark is actually the earliest instance of aspirin. It's actually how we developed aspirin then, um, therefore Willow bark is considered to be healing. And I just, you know, I wept when I read that, because I thought about how healing the name was for me and, I suppose it was just confirmation is everything is confirmation in my life that everything is everything. And, you know, I can, I can be working, working on trees and reading about trees and studying trees and researching trees and becoming a tree.

AS: Have you heard anything I'm sure you have, but Robin Wall Kimmerer has talked about kind of, uh, establishing a system of pronouns for living non-human beings. Um, Where like, uh, like if you were to refer to basically anything that exists in nature, that's not manmade, that's not a human would be Ki, which I think is from Anishinaabe language.

Um, and then the plural begin to Kin of establishing our in relation to these sentient beings and, and allow them their sentience and allow them to have these lives that we don't necessarily have to understand or control or know. But, But respect that they're there. And I think it's so beautiful. This kind of this just like, again, this, this continuation of the importance of language and all of this, that it's about respect.

And, um, when you treat beings with respect, when you speak about beings with respect, I think it all goes hand in hand and it kind of helps us reposition how we approach nature as, as like fellow beings, as opposed to separate from us, like you spoke about before, um, is that something you've thought about at all in any of your writing?

WD: Yeah, absolutely. You know, our very first issue at Atmos the theme was Neo natural. And part of the reason that that was our starting place was I was so obsessed with this idea of the word ‘natural,’ which is both one of my favorite words and also, a source of a lot of confusion for me, and I think a lot of pain, because the word natural essentially means something not created by humans or not artificial or human-made.

So at what point in time did we create this definition of nature that is separate from us and there are so many studies that show how language actually shapes the formation of our brain and the language that we learn shaping the formation of our brain, and so much can be traced to linguistics. And the fact that we refer to nature as something that's outside of ourselves, shapes how we understand nature and how we think of it as being something outside of ourselves.

So our whole first issue was about reframing language and it was about, um, what is, what is our Neo natural understanding of ourselves and the world that we belong to? You know, and I've, I've definitely experienced that so much with, um, even just when my pronouns changed. I remember I would, when that first happened, I watched people's minds change, you know, where suddenly they're thinking about everything and realizing how much gender language is a part of everything.

And that happened for me too. Um, Because you just don't realize how much something pervades, everything until awareness is brought to it. And I think that that has been one of the most rewarding things about me using that, and then pronouns is getting to watch the ripple effect of that. 

AS: What sorts of, what sorts of effects have you seen?

WD: Um, I think I'm thinking most, uh, most immediately about my, like my family even, and, you know. Yeah. I suppose like my mother, I think, you know, at first it was, she was incredibly accepting, has been so deeply accepting the whole time. Um, but just like watching her journey with the language and realizing how many words have gendered connotations to them.

Um, and her and I have a lot of really beautiful conversations about what it really means to be non-binary because I often, you know, I often say that I came, I came about the understanding of myself as being non-binary by way of the path of non-dualism. And they're really very much the same thing.

Non-dualism is more of a spiritual framework of understanding everything is being connected and everything as not being separate. I perceived being non-binary, it's the same thing to me. And so I, my business partner, you've been with Atmos as well, Jake, Jake Sergeant, um, him and I talk about this a lot as well as like, what is it to go, you know, beyond just an understanding of gender to really look at things through a lens of non-binary thinking.

Um, to me, non-binary thinking is always looking, whenever you find yourself in a binary of, this and that, what is the third option? Which is usually some, some point of connection between the two or a third point of the triangle or something. And I can't even tell you how many times that has, changed my decision-making process.

Like whenever I find myself now in a position where I'm having to choose between two things or I'm thinking of something is going one way or another way, I always stop for a second. I look back and I, I take a step back and I think, ‘well, what is the third option?’ and probably nine times out of 10, I go with whatever that third option is, because our minds work in a binary and binary is the same binary that creates separation because I'm getting really esoteric now, but you know, that's what the mind does in order to categorize things in order to logically make sense of everything, it has to separate them into things. So, you know, referring to that is that this and this is that. So when we start to get into non-binary thinking, we're starting to bridge the gap between all of those separations. And I think, you know, it's not a coincidence that, um, that I think nonbinary folks are coming out more and more. Um, they've always existed of course, but it's a question of visibility and I think we're seeing that more and more. Alongside, we’re also seeing more and more of an understanding of how interconnected we are with everything else. And I think the language is so much, so much a part of that. 

AS: Language is definitely a part of that, visibility is definitely a part of that. And I think that, um, I think the more we can, understand our oneness, the more open we can be to non-binary ways of thinking, um, and to be able to see the wholer picture and not just, like you said, categorize things, ‘it's this or it's that’.

Um, but to see beyond that, and really, I think that really opens up, the world to you too, when you can see things that way. Um, and for me, I get that from having that quiet time in nature where I get that. But like you said, it's not necessarily about like going into an actual forest, it's about seeing and appreciating the nature around you and taking the time to understand your part of that and your connection to that.

That is what really opens up the world. Um, and obviously if you can get to a forest, then that's amazing. That's like a quicker way to get there. 

WD: Yeah. It's the, it's like instead of a battery it's being plugged into the wall. Um, yeah. And I think that there's, you know, to bring it back to forests, I think, you know, the idea of oneness, something that fore

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