Willow Defebaugh Is Looking Into Woolly Mammoth Resurrection
If you walk through Transmitter Park in Greenpoint, you may pass the site of what was once Willow Defebaugh’s favorite tree in New York, recently toppled by a storm. Now, when she sits on that park bench, she watches a willow sapling growing in its place. As editor-in-chief and co-founder of the climate magazine Atmos, and writer of the environmentally-focused weekly newsletter The Overview, Defebaugh has amassed a considerable audience for her poignant reflections on living through, and combatting, climate crisis, from mourning melting glaciers and finding faith in the aurora borealis. When we tracked her down for this week’s installment of Search History, she was looking into woolly mammoth resurrection. “There’s no reason that climate activism can’t be also fun and cool,” she explains. So we picked her brain about environmentalist memes, the utility of Instagram infographics, and the best ways to combat climate anxiety.
EMMA SCHARTZ: A/S/L?
WILLOW DEFEBAUGH: I’m 33 years old, and I live in Brooklyn, and I’m female.
SCHARTZ: What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
DEFEBAUGH: Oh, great question. I do my best to not start doom scrolling immediately because I find that that is the quickest way to start off the day on the wrong note. Typically, I wake up, I do my skincare routine, get dressed, take my dog for a walk around the neighborhood, pick up a matcha at my favorite local shop. Sometimes if it’s a writing day, I’ll start the day with a tea meditation practice I do in my own home just to kind of get myself in the right headspace to write.
SCHARTZ: What’s in your system currently?
DEFEBAUGH: Matcha in a reusable cup, obviously. Probiotic cashew milk, yogurt. This is the most environmentalist answer I could possibly do. And a banana.
SCHARTZ: Do you have a favorite online thrifting platform?
DEFEBAUGH: I’m a big fan of The RealReal. You can find so many incredible vintage designer pieces and secondhand designer pieces on there. I think there’s this sort of idea, which fashion is starting to break out of, that to have great style or to care or love fashion you have to always be exclusively wearing what’s in and what’s new. And when you scroll through platforms like The RealReal, you just see how much incredible artistic work is already out there.
SCHARTZ: Do you have a favorite piece of clothing that you’ve thrifted or something that you’re loving right now?
DEFEBAUGH: Oh, that is a great one. I have this Raquel Zimmermann dress that I actually got on Poshmark, and it was one of those things where I saw the dress and I was in love with it and I was like, “I wonder if I can find it anywhere.” It was so expensive and I had no idea if it was going to fit. And the problem with Poshmark is you can’t return it. You know what? I was like, “I’m going to fucking go for it.” And it was for my birthday last year and it fit me like a glove and I was like, “Kismet.”
SCHARTZ: What were your last three Google searches?
SCHARTZ: What is Woolly Mammoth resurrection? Did you find the answer?
DEFEBAUGH: Actually, we have a story about this on Atmos. It is an effort to actually bring woolly mammoths back from extinction because there have been certain traces of their DNA that have been discovered in melting ice, I believe in the Arctic. So there are actual efforts to try to bring this species back, which poses a really interesting ethical debate within the world of conservation, which makes one think of Jurassic Park.
SCHARTZ: Yes, that is real life Jurassic Park. Where do you spend the most time online?
DEFEBAUGH: I spend a lot of time on Britannica researching really specific species of flora and fauna, Slack talking to the Atmos team, and I’m unfortunately going to say Instagram.
SCHARTZ: Speaking of Instagram, what are your thoughts on Instagram infographics?
DEFEBAUGH: Oh, how much time do you have? Atmos definitely does a lot of Instagram infographics. I would say we used to do a lot more. I think that they’re important. They’re a great tool for educating people because I think more and more people are really visual. The era of the 10 slide infographic posts, like “this is why you need to care about this,” has more or less seen its heyday. I think people are maybe more interested in getting real life perspectives from people, and I think that’s probably why videos are so successful now. For me, why I’ve always been a journalist and a writer is that I’m interested in stories and I think stories are at the heart of humanity, and I think infographics can’t always capture a story. We need to make sure that people don’t lose sight of the importance of in-depth reporting and narrative storytelling. So, I think when they can be in service of that, then I’m all for them, but not as a replacement.
SCHARTZ: Absolutely, and that kind of gets at another question. How do you think we can use social media effectively to combat climate change?
DEFEBAUGH: That’s the billion-dollar question. I think the power that social media and the arts have is to make an issue cool. And we are coming on the heels of Climate Week in New York City and there was this New York Times article about how it was “the Burning Man of climate,” or something. As cringe as that headline was, I had more people than ever texting like, “Wow, there are so many incredible events. I saw you were at a climate drag show. I saw you posting about this and that,” and to me, that’s the power of leveraging culture, and a huge part of culture is social media. There’s no reason that climate activism can’t be also fun and cool. And I think that’s also the power of fashion. I think of the sustainable designers out there who are doing it, who make it something you want to be a part of.
SCHARTZ: Do you have any favorite sustainable designers or brands?
DEFEBAUGH: I’m a big Collina Strada girl. I think that not only do they do incredible work with regenerative materials like rose silk, they also work in upcycling. And I also just really appreciate the way that they frame all of their work. There’s so much pressure for brands to be perfect, and I don’t think that this model and this industry or system is set up for brands to be perfectly sustainable. The more we can make environmentalism something that’s less gate-kept and more of an invitation for people to do their best, the more people we will draw into it. We need a lot more imperfect environmentalists than we do a few perfect ones.
SCHARTZ: Do you have a favorite activist working in climate right now?
DEFEBAUGH: Choose one? That’s so hard.
SCHARTZ: You can give me a few!
DEFEBAUGH: It’s so hard not to just name all my friends. One person who’s jumping to mind is Leah Thomas, who’s one of the founders of Intersectional Environmentalist. I’ve known Leah for a few years now, and she’s someone who really just changed the entire movement and industry by drawing attention to the ways in which environmentalism needs to be intersectional. Who else? I could be cliche and say Greta [Thunberg]. She has done a great job of both in starting Fridays for Future and having kids around the world strike, I think that really did shift the narrative so much in terms of public awareness around the climate crisis, and again, that has to do with storytelling, the story of kids not going to school because, what’s the point if they don’t have a livable future? Xiye Bastida is an incredible activist who I’ve had the good fortune of seeing speak in person a few different times. She’s in school and yet she’s going to every major event and conference and giving such impassioned speeches, and it’s really impossible to hear her talk and not be moved, so we’ll say those three.
SCHARTZ: I’ve never heard of her. I’m excited to look her up. What are you wearing right now?
DEFEBAUGH: Oh my gosh, I’m wearing a witchy velvet gown from GANNI, another one of my favorite sustainable fashion brands.
SCHARTZ: Do have any advice for combating climate anxiety, or a personal de-stressing routine?
DEFEBAUGH: I love this question. For me, it’s getting involved and taking action. So many people, whenever I tell them I work in climate, they’ll be like, “Oh, you must be so depressed all the time. It must be so anxiety-inducing,” and it’s interesting because there is that component of it for sure. But I would say, more often than not, actually having an outlet to do something and providing a platform for people to tell stories alleviates a lot of the anxiety. I think it was Joan Baez who said, “Action is the antidote to despair,” but whether that’s finding a local group that you can get involved in, whether that’s raising awareness in whatever platforms or ecosystems or social groups you’re a part of, or even if it’s just staying educated. The environmentalism mindset that we don’t need is everyone quitting their jobs to become a full-time climate activist. What we need is people shifting the work within their own sector. What does it look like in your place of work to bring in more of a lens of sustainability and asking questions related to climate?
SCHARTZ: Have you fallen down any climate rabbit holes on the internet lately?
DEFEBAUGH: Does Woolly Mammoth Resurrection count? I’ll go with that.
SCHARTZ: Do you have a favorite tree?
DEFEBAUGH: Specific tree or species?
SCHARTZ: Specific tree.
DEFEBAUGH: Well, you know what? I am going to be predictable here and I’m going to say willow trees, and there is a specific willow tree. I live in Greenpoint, in Brooklyn, and [in] Transmitter Park, for a very long time a full-grown willow tree lived and grew and there’s this park bench right underneath it. And I used to go and sit and read under it all of the time, and it was just my favorite little place in the city. And during a storm in 2020, the tree was uprooted and it was so sad. I had to grieve the tree, and they planted a sapling in its place, also a willow tree. So, now I like to go and I like to check in on the sapling and watch it grow.
SCHARTZ: Do you have a favorite season?
DEFEBAUGH: I’m such a season girl. I really love them all. I used to hate winter, but as I’ve gotten older I’m just like, “Let’s cook some stews and read and settle in.” My favorites are spring and fall, I would say. My birthday’s in the spring. I love the feeling of just rebirth and coming back to life. And then at the same time, I love fall, the season of death and decay. I’m Scorpio rising. I have both sides.
SCHARTZ: The duality of woman. I think spring in the city is so special.
DEFEBAUGH: Sorry, once you asked me about the seasons, I’m not going to shut up. I also think spring and fall, they’re just so beautiful because they are transitional, and I think as climate change continues to wreak havoc on our world, we’re going to see more and more extremes, and I love savoring these more liminal spaces.
SCHARTZ: What is the strangest DM that you’ve ever received?
DEFEBAUGH: Oh, wow. What a good one. I don’t know why this is the one that’s coming to mind, but on a dating platform I got a message from someone saying, “Are you COVID? Because you just took my breath away.”
SCHARTZ: Print or digital?
DEFEBAUGH: Hate a binary, but I’m going to say print.
SCHARTZ: What does your Instagram explore page look like?
DEFEBAUGH: It is a mix of climate activism and fantasy romance novel content. I’m going to say also a mix of fungi content, a lot of mushrooms.
SCHARTZ: Do you have a favorite meme right now?
DEFEBAUGH: Oh my god, I love memes. It’s so easy for me to answer anything about, “Hey, do you want to talk about climate, you want to talk about Woolly Mammoth Resurrection?” But choose your favorite meme I’m like, “Oh, I need time to research.”
SCHARTZ: Describe your private browsing persona in three words.
DEFEBAUGH: Could it be four words?
DEFEBAUGH: “Should do it more.” Probably all of my data has been stolen because I am never on private browsing.
SCHARTZ: How many unread text messages do you have right now?
DEFEBAUGH: Only four, but I will say that that is uncharacteristic. The other day my team was talking about everyone getting to inbox zero, where you have no emails in your inbox, and I looked down at my inbox and it said 666. And I was like, “It’s a little different for me.”
SCHARTZ: What’s your password?
DEFEBAUGH: Did I not just tell you about my data being stolen?