This New Tarot Deck and Essay Collection Celebrate Northeast Ohio Wildlife

by Rosalie Murphy

In Rust Belt Arcana: Tarot and Natural History in the Exurban Wilds, available Oct. 30 from Belt Publishing, Akron-area natives Matt Stansberry and David Wilson celebrate local flora and fauna — and the ages-old tradition of tarot.

Matt, the project’s writer, grew up in Suffield and studied English at Kent State University. The devoted fly fisher and outdoorsman writes a column about Northeast Ohio ecology for Cleveland-based Belt Magazine.

David Wilson, a Field High School grad and Stow resident, illustrated the book and the tarot deck. 

About three years ago, Matt was stuck at Chicago O’Hare, flipping through Cleveland Metroparks materials on local creatures. He began thinking about how he could organize the writing he’d already done and the writing he would do in the future.

Tarot, he says, simply came to him. He began reading voraciously about the practice. Over time, the 22 major arcana began to represent 22 Northeast Ohio creatures who exhibited the characteristics described by those cards.

The Fool is a black bear living in the suburbs, confused. The Magician is the steelhead trout, a species native to the Pacific Ocean that has found a way to survive in Lake Erie. The Empress is skunk cabbage, a plant that breaks through snow in early spring by creating its own warmth.

The remaining remaining 56 cards in the deck are divided into four suits. In Rust Belt Arcana, swords are represented by birds. Wands are trees, cups are flowers and pentacles are bugs — all from Northeast Ohio.

David created 78 original watercolor paintings, one for each card in the tarot deck, for Rust Belt Arcana. 

“Around the 60th painting, I was like, ‘oh, what did I do?’” he jokes.

“Matt has really connected to (tarot), and he draws all this meaning from the cards,” David adds of his co-author. “I really like seeing what other people take from the cards.

Rust Belt Arcana is available from Belt Publishing on Oct. 30. The book is available online for $15 and the tarot deck for $40, and both will be available in local independent bookstores.

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This interview with author Matt Stansberry has been edited for brevity and clarity.

DS: Why did you structure this book around the tarot deck?

MS: As you start to mess around with the tarot deck, it changes the way you think. It suggests ideas and combinations of things to you that are really cool. When I was writing, I started every chapter by trying to understand the card. You don’t really know what you’re going to write about until you understand what the card is supposed to be.

We’ll start with The Fool. This card is embodied by somebody driven by their own appetites. They have these instincts; they don’t really know what they’re doing; it can be dangerous, but it can be liberating, exciting. So you’ve got this picture that the tradition has painted, and you’ve got to match it to something. I would never in a million years have written about black bears, but then, all of a sudden, The Fool was embodied in bears and I was writing an essay about black bears. I couldn’t ignore it. I had to follow where they sent me.

DS: When and why did you start writing about nature?

MS: It was mostly out of fishing. I grew up fishing and catching bugs and snakes and whatever I could get my hands on in Suffield, in the woods. That translated into environmental activism. I left Ohio in my 20s, and then came back, and it was all I wanted to do — fish, hike and look at birds. I spent a lot of time trying to find a way to write about it.

The writing I did for Belt Magazine prior to picking up this project was hardcore science-based — a lot of science and natural history. It was kind of an awkward sell to talk to folks who are Ph.D.s and curators of museums about the concept of the book. But once people got it, they totally got it. 

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DS: Which essay from the book is your favorite?

MS: Probably The Magician. This comes from my fishing background, and it’s about the Cuyahoga River, which is a huge part of Kent, Akron and Cleveland. It’s about nature being resilient in our most degraded habitats — the unintended consequences and the things that can happen in these creeks. The steelhead aren’t native to Ohio, and yet they’re here.

I feel the closest thing I have to a religion is fly fishing, and that comes through in that essay. It’s not something I do as much as I might’ve done in my 20s, but it’s still one of those deeply religious aspects of my life.

DS: What do you want people to take away from Rust Belt Arcana?

MS: What I want people to get out of this is just how many diverse and radically wild animals and natural processes there are 15 minutes from downtown, or even in downtown. I think it would blow people’s minds to know that there are creatures like this within Cuyahoga County and Summit County. It changes how you view the land, and how you treat it. If we know there are bears and bowfin and bitterns — those are wild, diverse and important animals for us and our kids to co-inhabit with. What does that mean for how we act today, to know what’s happening?

Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip. Her favorite Northeast Ohio creature is the sandhill crane. 

Images used with permission from David Wilson.