excerpt from
“Notes on Cure, Disability, and Natural Worlds”

(from a talk first given at San Diego State University, 2013)

You can also watch a captioned video of Eli giving this talk at the University of New Hampshire in April, 2015.

small square of portrait of Eli by Riva Lehrer, a hand grasping at a shirt

4: Restoration

As an ideology seeped into every corner of Western thought and culture, cure rides on the back of normal and natural. Insidious and pervasive, it impacts many, many bodies and minds. We need to respond not with a simple or reactive belief system, not with an anti-cure stance in the face of the endless assumptions about body-mind difference, but rather with a broad-based politics of cure mirroring the complexity of all our body-minds.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines cure as the “restoration of health.” In developing a politics of cure based upon this definition, it would be all too easy to get mired in an argument about health, trying to determine who’s healthy and who’s not, as if there’s one objective standard.

Instead I want to follow the word restoration. To restore an object or an ecosystem is to return it to an earlier, and often better, condition. We restore a house that’s falling down, a prairie that’s been decimated by generations of monoculture farming and fire suppression. In this return, we try to undo the harm, wishing the harm had never happened. Talk to anyone who does restoration work—a carpenter who rebuilds 150-year-old neglected houses, a conservation biologist who turns cornfields back to prairie—and she’ll say it’s a complex undertaking. A fluid, responsive process, restoration requires digging into the past, stretching toward the future, working hard in the present. And the end-results rarely, if ever, match the original state.

Restoring an ecosystem means rebuilding a dynamic system that has somehow been interrupted or broken—devastated by strip mining or clearcut logging, taken over by invasive species, unbalanced by the loss of predators, crushed by pollution. The work isn’t about recreating a static landscape somehow frozen in time, but rather about encouraging and reshaping dynamic ecological interdependencies, ranging from clods of dirt to towering thunderheads, tiny microbes to herds of bison, into a self-sustaining system of constant flux. This reshaping mirrors the original or historical ecosystem as closely as possible, but inevitably some element is missing or different. The return may be close but never complete.

The process of restoration is simpler with a static object—an antique chair or old house. Still, if the carpenters aren’t using axe-hewn timbers of assorted and quirky sizes; mixing the plaster with horse hair; building at least a few walls with chicken wire; using newspaper, rags, or nothing at all for insulation; then the return will be incomplete, possibly sturdier and definitely more energy efficient, but different from the original house. Even though restoration as a process is never complete, it always requires an original or historical state in which to root itself, a belief that this former state is better than what currently exists, and a desire to return to the original.

Thinking about the framework of restoration, I circle back to the folks who offer disabled and chronically ill people prayers, crystals, and vitamins; believing deeply in the necessity of cure. A simple one-to-one correspondence between ecological restoration and bodily restoration reveals cure’s mandate of returning damaged bodies to some former, and non-disabled, state of being. This mandate clearly locates the problem, or damage, of disability within individual disabled bodies and minds.

In response, disability activists have for decades said loudly and clearly, “Leave our bodies and alone. Stop treating us as broken.” We have defined disability as a matter of social justice—disability residing not in paralysis but in stairs without an accompanying ramp, not in blindness but in the lack of Braille and audio-recorded books. Disability itself doesn’t live solely in depression or anxiety but rather in a whole host of stereotypes and damaging material realities, not in dyslexia but in teaching methods unwilling to flex, not in lupus or multiple sclerosis but in the belief that certain bodily conditions are a fate worse than death. In this redefinition, the disability rights movement joins many other social change movements, ranging from Black civil rights to the women’s movement to queer liberation, in the on-going work of locating the problems of social injustice not in our bodies but in the world.

And now to return to restoration: for some of us, even if we accept disability as harm to individual bodies, restoration still doesn’t make sense, because an original non-disabled body doesn’t exist. How would I, or the medical establishment, go about restoring my body? The vision of me without tremoring hands and slurred speech, with more balance and coordination, doesn’t originate from my body’s history. Rather it arises from an imagination of what my body should be like, some definition of normal and natural.

5: Prairie

I think about the words natural and unnatural, normal and abnormal as you and I walk in the summer rain through a 30 acre pocket of tallgrass prairie that was, not so long ago, one big cornfield. We follow the path mowed as a firebreak. Water droplets hang on the grasses. Spider webs glint. The bee balm hasn’t blossomed yet. You point to numerous patches of birch and goldenrod; they belong here but not in this plenty. The thistle on the other hand simply shouldn’t be here. The Canada wild rye waves, the big bluestem almost open. Sunflowers cluster, spots of yellow orange amidst the gray green of a rainy day. The songbirds and butterflies have taken shelter. For the moment the prairie is quiet. Not an ocean of grasses but a start, this little piece of prairie is utterly different from row upon row of corn.

With the help of the Department of Natural Resources, you mowed and burned the corn, broadcast the seed—bluestem, wild rye, bee balm, cornflower, sunflower, aster—sack upon sack of just the right mix that might replicate the tallgrass prairie that was once here. Only remnants of the original ecosystem remain in the Midwest; isolated pockets of lead plants, milk weed, burr oaks, and switchgrass growing in cemeteries, along railroad beds, on remote bluffs, somehow miraculously surviving.

You burn; you plant; you root out thistle and prickly ash. You tend, save money for more seed, burn again. Over the last decade and a half of labor, you’ve worked to undo the two centuries of damage wrought by plows, pesticides, monoculture farming, and fire suppression. The state of Wisconsin partners in this work precisely because the damage is so great. Without the massive web of prairie roots to anchor the earth; the land now known as Wisconsin is literally draining away. Rain catches the topsoil, washing it from field to creek to river to ocean. Prairie restoration reverses this process, both stabilizing and creating soil. So you work hard to restore this 8,000 year old ecosystem, all the while remembering that the land isn’t yours nor the dairy farmer’s down the road, but rather stolen a mere century and a half ago from the Dakota people. The histories of dirt, grass, genocide, bison massacre float here.

We have taken this walk a dozen times over the last 15 years—at noon with the sun blazing, at dusk with fireflies lacing the grasses, at dawn with finches and warblers greeting the day. My feet still feel the old corn furrows. As we walk, I ask myself: Is this fragment of land in transition from cornfield to tallgrass prairie natural? If so, how do we name the overabundance of birch and goldenrod, the absence of bison? What used to be normal here? What can we consider normal now?

Normal and natural dance together, while unnatural and abnormal bully, threaten, patrol the boundaries. Of course it’s an inscrutable dance. How does unnatural technology repair so-called abnormal bodies to their natural states of being? Dismissing the distinctions between normal and abnormal, natural and unnatural, as meaningless would be lovely, except they wield extraordinary power.

copyright 2015, Eli Clare