Mending and Witnessing: The Practice of Desert Kinship
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, one of the things that moves me about your work is the kinship you feel with ravaged places, and the way that aligns with some of your own body knowledge as a disabled person. Can you say more about that?
Naomi: I live in the Arizona Borderlands, in a beautifully diverse ecosystem. Last summer, fire burned through an entire mountain range north of the city, everything from Sonoran desert up to pine forest. From my window, I watched the smoke travel across the mountain range. It was devastating.
It wasn’t just the fact of the fire, it was also the way people talked about it, all their devastation, all their worry. “What’s going to come back? Is it going to be native or non-native?” There was a lot of focus on that, and then there was a lot of focus on ignoring it and being like, “It’s going to be fine.”
When we’re seeing land that is ravaged, it’s not just us looking at it. We’re also seeing other people look at it and observe it and think about it, and talk about it.
Julia: There’s a powerful resonance there with the way disabled people get looked at, the way we often carry the weight of other people’s grief or worry about our bodies, the way we carry the burden of other people’s fears. How do you avoid that, when you’re sitting with a damaged landscape?
Naomi: To me, this is one of the really powerful tools about witnessing. It cracks open these super tender places that we don’t want to touch.
I’m thinking about looking at scars. How do we engage in the process of witnessing what happened, what the loss actually was, and then ask what mending can look like?
Julia: Mending feels really different from “fixing” and also from cure. Can we talk about that language and what the implications are?
Naomi: The difference between healing and mending is really profound. With healing, I feel that people get stuck on this idea of resolution. What we recognize as resolution is something that we can predict, something that’s more socially acceptable, more functional. To me, it has a lot of elements of control.
With mending, there’s an analogy I love to use. A friend of mine who is a knitter was mending a shawl. She says that usually, in order to mend a knitted piece, she has to first unravel it further, pulling it apart until she has solid strings to work with. Then she can begin to mend.
Mending always leaves a mark. Sometimes it’s hard to see the mended section, but the yarn feels rough where the rest of the garment is smooth and soft. Sometimes the mended section looks slightly lighter or darker. Mending changes the piece. And that change will always be part of what is formed next.
Mending is not a restoration, it’s a change.
Julia: The work of mending doesn’t try to go back to some original, perfect state. Instead, it asks us to recognize what has occurred, even as we allow for the possibility of change in the future. That feels really resonant to me, as a disabled person. It feels like a way to recognize that there’s beauty in our scars, that there’s power in letting them show.
But I imagine it can be quite difficult to be present with those scars, when you’re witnessing the land. How do you approach that?
Naomi: Especially in the West, the value of the land is based so much on extraction. Even looking at the mountains, you see beautiful curved shapes and then you see a flat patch where it’s been ripped off for money.
Maybe non-disabled people can disassociate more from what’s happening, because they can access some of these wild spaces that are further in. They can get to spaces that are more isolated, more untouched. But I can’t. Whether I’m in a parking lot or just on a dirt road, I’m present with the man-made, extracted stuff. It’s harder for me to not be in constant relationship with the impact of what’s happening.
Julia: In my own life, I feel that living with a disability has given me a deeper capacity to be present with what is. It’s helped me learn to sit with the truth of an experience, rather than immediately trying to fix it. Living with disability has taught me to not assume that beauty and possibility are gone, just because there was a change – even if it was a difficult change, even if it involves loss. I find myself trying to bring that same kind of presence to lands that have faced environmental harm, rather than rushing right away to some fantasy about restoration and repair.
Naomi: I really struggle with the way restoration takes us out of the now. It takes us out of what is actually in existence, where the land is right now.
When we focus the full force of the effort on restoration, we lose an ability to appreciate and be in relationship with what is right now. People get this fervor. A line of thinking where “we’re going to be able to get to restoration through control.”
In my experience as a disabled person, that’s not my experience of functionality. It’s not through control that I’m able to enjoy my body more. It’s through surrendering and listening to my body and for when opportunities come. It’s a very nuanced relationship.
In so many ways, we have to let go of that illusion of control. I mean you see that from the medical world. Before a surgery once, I was told, “Okay we’re going to completely cut your legs open, remove bone and do all these really intense things. But you know, in six weeks you’re going to be back up and walking.” But really, it’s a year and a half later, and there’s this massive process. There was a lot of loss after those surgeries that I wasn’t prepared for.
I think we look at the environment in a lot of similar ways. In the environmental movement, there’s often this idea of “Okay, well, we’ll just get our shit together and stop doing a million things and make all these changes, and then it’s going to go back to how it was before.”
Julia: That fantasy has such a powerful hold on us – that fantasy that we can do the right thing, and then everything will somehow be restored to its original, perfect state. But you’re inviting us to go deeper, to commit to building a relationship with our bodies and with the land that can encompass the reality of harm, that can touch the truth of loss. That’s really powerful.
Naomi: Environmental activists often advocate for wild spaces by saying, “Oh, these places are beautiful, we need to preserve them.” But if you have people who’ve never been able to enter wild spaces, it’s difficult to connect with that responsibility.
The question I start with is, “How do I support people in my life to develop a love relationship with where they are?” Because nothing can change if people don’t care about it.
For example, I used to take my niece out to the desert when she was younger. Her family does not do nature. They don’t do camping. But the two of us would go out and really engage with one little patch of the desert. We talked about the plants and noticed the animals that were there. That’s what I call, developing a “witnessing relationship.” Now she has a sense of the place that she lives, beyond just the urban environment. That starts the love relationship.
Julia: That kind of witnessing work is a big part of your own activism, isn’t it?
Naomi: For me, witnessing is accessible. I’m often not really able to access traditional advocacy spaces. I’m not seen as the person who goes and does all the hiking. That’s how people bond in those groups, by going out to the border wall and hiking out there. A lot of the bonding happens in inaccessible ways.
But witnessing is something I can show up and do. And it’s really important as an artist and as a writer, because I’m translating that witnessing into work that I can share with others. That’s my little piece I can do. And, at the same time, it feels super inadequate.
Julia: I’m not sure that anyone who does environmental work feels that what they’re doing is enough. I don’t think any of us feel up to the task. When the stakes are so high, when the work often feels out of reach, I think recognizing and honoring these small, concrete actions can actually ground us. If we hold that recognition gently, with humility, we can say to each other, “This piece is important to me. This is why it matters, and why it matters that I do it.” Of course, it’s inadequate. But it’s also crucial.
Naomi: There’s something I notice when I talk to my friends about climate change. We’ll be talking about something that’s scary, like the ozone has been really high in our area from all the wildfires and because of the heat. And people are like, “You know, climate change, what can you do?” And to me, that’s indicative of pain and fear. The shrug of the shoulders, that question, “What can you do?”
I’ve been writing a poetry book that grapples with how to witness the changes in the place where I live. Three quarters of the book is about asking the question: How do I touch this thing that hurts so much?
Julia: That’s such a difficult, urgent question. How do you find yourself sitting with grief? How do you hold it?
Naomi: When I first realized that climate change was gonna forever alter where I live, it was piercing grief. But through the practice of witnessing, there’s been a shift, a deepening. I’m in relationship with grief. And like a lot of relationships, it evolves over time.
For me, faith and witnessing are really interlinked. Witnessing is grief work, and grief work rests in faith that we will somehow move through the depths of despair, that it will shift.
I think that grief work is a way to brace the tenderness of the pain. It’s a way to pray, honestly.
Julia: Sometimes when people talk about having faith in the midst of grief, they mean faith that things will turn out alright. But I don’t think that’s what you mean. When you’re talking about prayer, you’re not talking about praying for a specific outcome, right? You’re talking about a way of being present with your own feelings and with the reality of what is. A way of being held, even amidst pain.
Naomi: In my practice, sorrow is sacred. When I bear witness, I’m sitting in these depths, letting myself go in and out. I find I actually have to rest there, in that emptiness.
At the same time, I hear the mountain range telling me not to put all this grief on it. I need to believe in its ability to mend.
So, yeah, I’m hella sad all the time. And I’m also able to still receive gifts from the desert. I’m also able to be present.
Julia: I find that really beautiful, the way you’re describing the process of coming to rest in the emptiness. It’s like you’ve made a commitment to not turn away from sorrow, to turn toward it instead. I’m wondering what sustains you, when you’re in the midst of grief? Are there spiritual tools you’ve found helpful, or practices that you turn to?
Naomi: There are times when I just hit this rock bottom empty and I have absolutely no idea where to go, or what to do. So I go into the desert, and I ask for four things I can accept right now. I start with the simple, like the dirt digging into my arm. Then the more challenging, the things I can’t control.
I think that there’s a resistance, sometimes, to looking at what we can accept in the moment because it feels like giving up.
But I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s understanding the landscape that you’re sitting in, in that moment, in order to know literally where you are. When we acknowledge that for ourselves, it’s a way to create a foundation, to potentially build something new or to stay there for a while. There’s something so powerful in naming where we are.
“Mending and Witnessing: The Practice of Desert Kinship – 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.