Lessons from the Loon
on disability and cultural context
The loon is an important symbol in my growing lexicon of animal metaphors for disability.
“It embodies the very spirit of far places, of forest-clad lakes where the clear air is scented with balsam and fir. . .no one who has ever heard the diver’s music, the mournful far-carrying call notes and the uninhibited, cacophonous, crazy laughter, can ever forget it.”
It is pretty fucking eerie:
She’s a perfect example of how disability is contextual - a fast swimmer who can take off and fly just fine from the water, she is practically immobilized on land. Her bones are dense and her legs set far back beneath her body, which is ideal for diving and swimming, but on land, her top-heavy form flops forward and she can’t achieve the very long running start she needs to fly.
It’s not uncommon to find a loon stranded in a parking lot, flailing - sort of how I feel trying to fit myself into a 40-hour work week.
The loon is at home in the water, and she can swim her way into flight just fine, but on land, she’s stuck. There’s nothing wrong with her, she’s just caught in the wrong context.
Linguistically, loon recalls the word lunatic, which comes from the term luna, for the moon, a celestial body that was often thought to invoke madness (see: werewolves). We get the stigmatizing terms loony (for crazy) and loony bin (for the psych ward) from this line of words, too.
The associations are clear, considering Thoreau’s descriptions, but English professor Sarah Harlan-Haughey explains that this is actually a sort of folk etymology, which happens when people assume certain words are historically linked, even when they’re technically not.
There’s a theory that the bird’s name came from the Old Norse word lómr, which may have been related to the words lame and lamentation - perhaps referencing their immobility on land or their haunting call.
While white Westerners like Thoreau see the loon as a symbol of madness, many indigenous cultures revere her. Sometimes called the earth-diver, she is a hero, diving to the bottom of the ocean to bring up mud to create the world. Her call is not demoniac in Wabanaki folklore, but a way of communicating with the divine.
Disability, too, is conceived of differently across cultures - in our industrial capitalist society, we stigmatize disabled people for their inabilities. We talk about the “cost” of disability in economic terms, the “burden” on society, and we pity people for the things they cannot do, or worse, use them as inspiration porn for the things they can.
Our idea of disability is based in our construct of normalcy, a word that actually did not exist in English until 1857. The idea of a norm grew out of the science of statistics, a “political arithmetic” created by industrialists with eugenic motivations.
But a 2001 paper that explored attitudes toward disability in a Lakota community describes a different view:
“For Lakota, there is no impairment in intellectual functioning because the full range of intelligence is considered to be normal...Physical differences, such as loss of an eye or limb or inability to walk or hear, are also all considered to be possible variations of the human condition.
Some physical variations may lead to the need for assistance from others. But the need for assistance does not lead to a handicap, that is, to the person being marginalized or dis-empowered, because these physical variations are not within the control of the individual. They just ‘are’ and must, therefore, be dealt with.”
In A Disability History of the United States, Kim A. Nielsen writes:
“Indigenous scholars and activists Dorothy Lonewolf Miller (Blackfeet) and Jennie R. Joe (Navajo) suggest that some indigenous nations have defined what might be called disability in relational rather than bodily terms.
In indigenous cultures, “disability” occurred when someone lacked or had weak community relationships. Though individuals might experience impairment, disability would come only if or when a person was removed from or was unable to participate in community reciprocity.
For example, a young man with a cognitive impairment might be an excellent water carrier. That was his gift. If the community required water, and if he provided it well, he lived as a valued community member with no stigma. He participated in reciprocity and lived in balance. His limitations shaped his contributions, but that was true of everyone else in the community as well.”
None of this is to say that indigenous communities are utopias where disabled people encounter no problems, as the authors of the first paper are careful to point out, but to illustrate how disability is defined by sociocultural context — something critical disability scholars have been writing for quite some time.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of considering our DSM labels to be innate facts of who we are, some essential truth written into our very neurology - but anthropology shows us that disability is not static and unchanging across time and space. It’s defined by the time and culture in which someone lives, and by the things that culture values and considers normal.
Like the talented diver bird who gets hopelessly trapped on acres of concrete outside shopping malls, we struggle to fly in a world created to generate profit instead of care.
But what’s truly unnatural in that situation? Certainly not the loon.