Bracing Against Place: Disability, Nature, and Interdependence
Naomi Ortiz in conversation with Julia Watts Belser
Naomi Ortiz (they/she) is a disabled Mestize writer and visual artist living in the Arizona US/Mexico borderlands whose intersectional work focuses on disability justice, eco-justice, and relationship with place. Their book, Sustaining Spirit: Self-Care for Social Justice, draws on decades of experience in self-advocacy and social justice work to help activists tap into spiritual tools for responding to exhaustion, grief, and burnout. In 2021, Ortiz was awarded a Border Narrative Grant from the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures for her multidisciplinary project, Complicating Conversations between Disability Justice and Eco-justice in the Arizona Borderlands.
Julia: Naomi, you’re someone with a very deep connection to land and to nature. Can you tell us more about the place where you live, and what draws you to wild places?
Naomi: I live in the Sonoran desert, in the American Southwest, near the border. When I think about this bioregion, it’s a place of remarkable longevity. Ironwood trees can live for 500 years. Ocotillos can live for a hundred years. Some people say there’s an 8,000 year-old creosote that has grown and died and grown and died, always from the same roots.
Being out in the desert, I have a strong sense of the interdependence of this place. It’s that interdependence that I feel inspired by, when I’m in relationship with nature – the way that plants are in relationship to the soil, and both of them are in relationship to the bugs, and all of those are in relationship to the other animals. It’s all interdependence. For me, actually, nature is anywhere where interdependence is happening.
Julia: Your insight about interdependence feels like a powerful bridge between ecological thinking and disability experience. Disability communities often hold interdependence as a core value, a way of honoring the truth that none of us are independent, that we humans all rely on others. And ecologists recognize interdependence as a hallmark of any vibrant ecosystem, that relationship you’re describing between plants and pollinators and soil.
I wonder how that shapes what you mean, when you talk about nature? I’m thinking about the way that environmental justice activists have urged us not just to focus our attention on beautiful, faraway wild places, but to also protect and cherish urban environments, to stop turning certain communities into toxic dumping grounds, to value and care for the places where people actually live.
Naomi: Among my friends, there’s a lot of discomfort around being in nature. Most of them don’t see nature as a place that feels good. That’s fascinating to me, because for me, nature is a place I brace against. I have to have access to nature.
I find a lot of wisdom and beautiful energy there. But my friends have a really different relationship to that. So I’ve started asking, how do we define nature? What do we mean by that?
I’ve often used the word nature to mean, “out there, in the wild” somewhere. But I’ve come to realize that nature can be anywhere: in your backyard, at the bus stop, at your kitchen table, where somebody’s helping you fold laundry and you’re all talking and sharing stories.
I think we have to stop thinking about wild spaces and urban spaces as binaries.¹ As disabled people, we are often taught structurally that wild spaces are not for us. But wild spaces are actually everywhere.
Julia: I’m curious about how your disability shapes the way you interact with the land? How it shapes what you see, or where you go?
Naomi: As a disabled person, I’m always at the cusp of city and wild space. For example, if there’s a really rocky, pretty tough hiking trail, but it has a nice parking lot, I’ll go to the parking lot, wedge my vehicle in the corner of the parking lot, and then I’ll set up my chair in the corner so it’s right on that threshold.
It’s definitely desert. But there’s going to be trash there from people who were partying. There’s going to be water bottles and energy bar wrappers.
I’m there, watching this beautiful interdependent patch of land, watching the animals interact. A Harris’ antelope ground squirrel will come pick a cholla bud, tuck it in its cheek, then go back into its burrow, and I’m watching the spiders and ants and all these creatures that are there. But I can’t just be with those things. I’m also with the man-made aspects of the space too.
Julia: That’s such a brilliant way of creating access – finding a spot right at the edge of the parking lot! But it’s also deeply frustrating that wheelchair access to wild places is so often so meager. Disability studies theorist Sarah Jaquette Ray argues that Americans have this cultural image that the person who gets to enjoy the wild is a robust, rugged hiker – “Adventure Man.”² Our built infrastructure backs that up. The parking lot wasn’t actually built for you or me. The parking lot was built so Adventure Man would have a place to leave his car, when he hikes up the side of the mountain.
Naomi: The parking lot is an access technology, an intervention that has been made in the landscape. But folks often take it for granted, as an inevitable part of car culture. But if you try to put in a paved accessible path? Wilderness preservation groups will often protest that it’s a blight on the landscape, a distortion of real wilderness.³ Disability access gets cast as the enemy of nature, while all those roads, highways, and parking lots are accepted as inevitable, the basic price of cars and capitalism.
I live in a place where there’s been so much extraction. There are these huge mine roads that go through wild spaces and then get abandoned, once the mines are no longer of value. They’ve taken what they can, and there are piles of waste left behind. But I wonder, why can’t we pave one of those mine roads as a hiking trail?
If we really want people to have a stronger sense of place and to be more invested in protecting it, they need to be able to access it. Whether it’s a mine road or a parking lot, it needs to be easy to get to.
Julia: During the pandemic, because of my own high COVID risks, it’s been very difficult for me to get out to my usual wild places. It’s really painful to be so cut off from the places that nourish me. But during these months, I’ve built a deep relationship with the trees right outside my apartment building. I would never describe them as being wild. They got planted by a developer. They have little grates over their roots! But they’re here, and I’m here. I really care about them, and I feel a sense of close connection with them and a recognition of our reciprocity. We companion each other, through these days.
But I also long for a different kind of spaciousness, a kind of stillness that I find in wild places.
Naomi: It’s challenging to find solitude as a disabled person in nature. You go out to a picnic area, and any spaces that are accessible? That’s where everybody goes! Because they’re accessible.
Spaciousness is one of my core values. It’s something I need in order to feel like me. And to not have easy access to that? That’s been such a discipline of patience. Sometimes I’ll go out when the weather is horrible, just so I’m more likely to be alone. I’ll go out when it’s 110 degrees, because I know not a lot of people are going to be there. Just to have 20 minutes of solitude.
And I’ve learned to find other moments of solitude too. If you’re sitting in the parking lot at a hike, for example, inevitably there will be a moment where nobody else is there. I sit and I wait for those moments, and then I just allow myself to really drop in and do my listening at that time.
Julia: That’s a really beautiful practice, the way you wait for those moments. You trust they will come, and you hold yourself ready. There’s something profound about entering into stillness, about allowing yourself to sink into quiet.
Naomi: It’s not just sound, it’s also vibration. When I sit in the city, I can feel it vibrating. I live between major roads so trucks and trains and traffic make the ground vibrate, but when I get to a space that’s still, I can tell immediately. It’s so restorative for my body. It’s calming and much easier to get connected to my internal self.
Finding that stillness has become more challenging than finding quiet. There are a couple of really rugged hiking trails around here, so if I go to the parking lot in the middle of the summer heat, I can find solitude. But the vibration still exists, because the city is expanding and growing.
For me, getting outside the city’s range is a massive commitment. I’m fortunate to have access to a vehicle and I drive, and I have a partner who drives me sometimes. A few times a year, we drive pretty far out to national parks that are further away, and then we find a place to sit by the side of the road. There, the vibration is so different. I mean, the literal vibration, not just the energy.
Julia: I think that’s a dimension of access that many non-disabled folks don’t think about: all the preparation and organization that disabled people have to invest in navigating a world that’s often inaccessible for us. What does that look like for you?
Naomi: The ability to have quiet and solitude is really precious, but it takes a lot of planning. I have to find somebody to go with me, if not two people, who are also willing to sit down and be quiet. I don’t go when it’s raining, because my scooter would die in the rain. So I plan ahead a lot.
That’s something that’s tough not to resent. My partner is disabled too, so when we want to go out, we have to set aside a week to get everything together to go on a day trip, and then after the trip, it takes a week or two to recover. When I talk to my friends who like to go camping, they’ll say, “Oh yeah, let’s just go this weekend,” while I need three weeks to plan for that.
Julia: I’d love to go back to your story about the parking lot, about what you said about the way sitting at the margins of that space gives you a different kind of perspective. I’m really interested in the ways disabled people experience the world differently, how disability affects our perception and our sense of place.
As a wheelchair user, I have an intimate connection with the ground. It’s a really specific kind of awareness, a sense of place that’s rooted in my own disability experience. I know how the ground feels beneath my wheels. There are a couple bricks right outside my office at Georgetown that are a little loose, and every time I roll over them, they make a very distinctive sound. I feel it like a little shiver of welcome, a sense of coming home.
So I’m curious about your own experience. How does your disability inform your relationship with land and place?
Naomi: When I’m trying to move over ground, there’s actually a lot more anxiety than joy. If I’m trying to move over gravel, for example, or over soft dirt, I can get stuck and it’s really stressful.
When I’m outside, I like to touch the ground. But I can’t walk without shoes on. I have very specific braces, so if I’m going to touch the ground, it has to be with my hands or some other part of my body. So I have to be mindful to make that effort to actually touch the soil.
Soil is like skin. It’s what interconnects everything, like the fabric that holds us all up. And I can sense that, whether I’m in my scooter or stop someplace. Soil is so spacious, so expansive.
Julia: Earlier in our conversation, you said, “Nature is a place I brace against.” That’s such a poetic turn of phrase, but it’s also really beautiful to me from a disability perspective. You’re someone who uses braces to walk, right? I’d love to hear more about how your own embodied experience with the brace informs your relationship with place?
Naomi: Yeah, I can’t walk without braces. They’re part of the technology I use to live in the world. I take them everywhere–if I go camping, I have to be careful with them. They could get snapped, or get messed up. Lots of things could happen. But I choose to take that risk.
When I was little, my mom taught me lots of ways to love nature. I was in a body cast and she used to bring me outside so I could make little mud cakes and play in the dirt. That cast definitely looked raggedy after a while. But I think a gift my mom gave me is that understanding that you have to live your life and take some risks.
The braces make that possible. When I rely on a brace, it’s a form of interdependence. I’m bracing against something, and it’s bracing against me. A brace offers firmness. It’s a scaffolding that does not move.
When I brace against place, it’s an acknowledgement of constantly being in an interdependent relationship with place. I brace against the little palo verde on the street outside my house, against the ground underneath the pavement. And I trust the brace will be there in some form, no matter what, until I die.
¹ Here, Naomi acknowledges the insights of Syren Nagakyrie, who runs the organization Disabled Hikers. Nagakyrie writes, “We can not continue to view ‘urban’ and ‘wild’ or ‘built’ and ‘natural’ as a binary … With wild spaces designated as pristine landscapes reserved for the few, while urban spaces are left to languish without access to green spaces.” Syren Nagakyrie, “Disability is Natural,” in Nature is a Human Right: Why We’re Fighting for Green in a Gray World, ed. Ellen Miles. (DK, 2022), 170-181.
² Sarah Jaquette Ray, The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in American Culture. The University of Arizona Press, 2013.
³ For a powerful account of these dynamics, see Alison Kafer, “Bodies of Nature: The Environmental Politics of Disability” in Feminist, Queer, Crip. (Indiana University Press, 2013), 129-148.
“Bracing against place: Disability, Nature, and Interdependence – Naomi Ortiz in conversation with Julia Watts Belser.” Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project. July 1, 2022.
Curated and edited by Julia Jackson and Julia Watts Belser
Bio photo by Jade Beall. Naomi Ortiz, a light-skinned mestizx, with dark hair and silver hoop earrings, sits in their scooter in front of an ocotillo in the Sonoran desert. They are wearing a fedora hat, hoop earrings, black dress with cacti print, textured tights, silver bracelet, and pink boots. In the distance is a mountain and cacti.
Desert photo by Naomi Ortiz. A Nopale (prickly pear) cactus is in rocky dirt pocketed with holes (animal burrows). Further away Palo Verde, Ironwood trees, and Saguaro cacti are against a backdrop of shadow-interlaced mountains.