Problems of Place: On Finding Self in Scholarship

Editor’s Note: It’s EHN’s three-year anniversary this week! We’re celebrating all week long by featuring one piece every day to mark the occasion. Today, as part of our #ProblemsOfPlace series, Ana Sekulić reflects on the question where disabled bodies fit in academia and in natural environments. 


During the fall of 2015, I adopted a 9.00 a.m. routine: Every morning, I would visit the Bosnian town Fojnica. Located an hour away from Sarajevo, it is guarded by the storied Ottoman gravestone on the right and the peaks of Vranica Mountain on the left. Upon my arrival, I would follow the morning shades before I turn left to begin a steep ascent to the Franciscan monastery which has been overlooking the town since the 1520s. 

The main reason behind my consistent visits to this monastery was to have access to the Ottoman archives it holds, which have been collected by the Franciscans of Fojnica for four hundred years during the Ottoman rule. Having only recently embarked on my dissertation project researching the Ottoman history, I was lured by the idea of studying Ottoman scripts in Catholic spaces. However, my research didn’t unravel much of the preconceived cultural contradictions between the Catholics and the Muslims. The two communities shared the town for centuries and had established ways of building both bridges and boundaries. Instead, my dissertation project wrestled with matters regarding the very nature of the archives and the landscape that surrounded them. I grappled with (hi)stories written not only on paper but on land as well. Between land and paper stood my disabled body.

*** 

In Fojnica, my research assumed a particular rhythm: I was poring over the documents in the monastic archive between the daily treks up and down the windy road. Some days, my climb was brisk. More often, though, I struggled to balance my prosthetic foot onto the steep concrete which constantly sent a sharp pain to my knee. Snaking steeply from the valley, the road ended at the church guarded by a linden, offering a commanding view of the valley and the mountains at which the physical pain slowly yielded to pleasure. 

Moving through this landscape became an interpretative key to the stories I read on page. The chronicles told me that monastery nestled in the forested foothills in order to hide from the Ottomans. But on my daily visits, peering through the archive window from which I saw all the street corners, courtyards, and minarets, offered additional insights. This place was as much about seclusion as it was about control and perhaps even superiority: Heights clearly matter. 

The line between walking and working became blurred in these archival peregrinations. Over time, I understood the monastery to be a point of topographical and spiritual intersections. It belongs to the valley but also to the mountain. The French geologist Albert Bordaux, while traveling through Fojnica in search for minerals at the turn of the twentieth century, described the monastery as a cloister in which the forested mountain slopes served as a wall.[1] The mountain was the monastery. Its timber and springs sustained it over centuries, and the silver extracted from its depths furnished the sacred liturgical vessels. 

The monastery was also a gateway. It was a point from where herders and animals journeyed to the summer pastures at nearly two thousand meters, thus overlooking crucial seasonal migrations. At least once during the summer, the friars too ascended to the summit, saying mass to mark the day of the Prophet Elijah and extending the sacred space from the church in the foothills to as far as eye can see. 

Just as landscape followed me to the archive, the documents urged me toward the mountain. But while the monastery and the archive were spaces that I could navigate, the mountain was the end of the road. My body couldn’t follow in the footsteps of the past protagonists. As a historian of the environment, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy. For many historians, immersion in the environments they study is a matter of pride and lore. Roderick Nash, who famously paddled down the Colorado River, said that “[j]ust as scholar of the Renaissance needs to travel to Italy, I felt I was a more sensitive writer because I walked talk in wild country.”[2]

Walking the talk: the idea that insight comes from a particular type of physical exertion in inhospitable terrains. The seemingly innocuous phrase whose rhyme captures the implicit link between able bodies and trustworthy knowledge. This is, of course, the core of the myth of the western frontier and wilderness, but its principles that privilege the able-bodied are built into other landscapes and other types of history writing. I tried walking and talking, until I couldn’t. If my legs cannot take me to certain spaces, can my mind truly know them? 

*** 

I had always loved mountains. I loved them, as Eli Clare writes, “not a soft romantic love, but a deep down rumble in my bones.”[3] Even as a disabled child with fragile bones I often looked for refuge under the thick canopies of trees, daydreaming along the silent slopes of northern Istria. But after leaving the green embraces of home where hills and forest were a fact of life, I found myself among those for whom nature was about conquest and privilege, those who pushed their bodies to their limits. Story after story of appreciating nature taught me that if I couldn’t trek with heavy equipment strapped to my frail hips, I didn’t belong there. 

Now the same doubt confronted me as a scholar. But this isn’t particularly a scholarly question; it is a question of where disabled bodies fit in academia and in natural environments. Among many things, disability itself is defined as “alienation from nature in literary texts and environmental discourses.”[4] Even more so, the knowledge about the environment is supposedly achieved by “deep immersion in nature,” where deep immersion equals lone battling with natural obstacles.[5]

I eventually claimed my place in scholarship and landscape by circling back to the archive. Page by page, I traced footsteps of the friars as they crossed the mountains of Fojnica, Bosnia, and beyond, exploring the pathways that wove different stories and visions of that landscape. Friars frail and fit, those who climbed the mountains and those who contemplated them from afar all figured different ways to interact with nature and create meaning in it. For some, mountains stood for wilderness and spiritual isolation; for others, they were earthly paradise. Sometimes, they were a combination of both. 

My research turned into an enactment of Simon Schama’s poetic definition of landscape—made of layers of rock and as well as work of mind.[6] My body finding ways to navigate spaces, both written and physical, made it clear to me that different bodies—and different communities and narratives—have also found different ways to exist in nature. 

Recently, well after the dissertation was printed and bound, I turned to the writings on disability and environmentalism. I was particularly struck by the observation by a feminist scholar Alison Kafer: “natural environment is also built: literally so in the case of trails and dams, metaphorically so in the sense of cultural constructions and deployments of nature, natural, and environment.”[7] This is the different phrasing of exactly the same thought offered by Schama and many others who claim that landscapes are always the result of molding physical contours into particular cultural meaning.

However, disabled bodies rarely take that scholarly discussion. For me, though, it’s as though I carried the questions of this dissertation in my bones long before I knew anything about Ottomans, monasteries, or history.


[1] Albert Bordeaux, La Bosnie populaire (Paris: Librarie Plon, 1904), 137-138.

[2] Char Miller, “Foreword,” in Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash (New Haven, CT: Yale University 2014), viii.

[3] Eli Claire, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 3-4.

[4] Sarah Jacquette Ray, “Risking Bodies in the Wild: The ‘Corporeal Unconscious’ of American Adventure Culture,” in Disability Studies and Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory, ed. Sarah Jacquette Ray and Jay Sibara (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), 48-49.

[5] Alison Kafer, “Bodies of Nature: The Environmental Politics of Disability,” in Disability Studies and Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory, ed. Sarah Jacquette Ray and Jay Sibara (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), 206.

[6] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995), 7.

[7] Kafer, “Bodies of Nature,” 202.

*Cover image: Fojnica. Picture by author.

[Cover image description: a mountainous landscape with lush green scenery all around, a town located in the valley under a cloudy, misty sky.]

Edited by Asmae Ourkiya, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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