The Rust Belt Tarot deck and Rust Belt Arcana book, but Matt Stansberry and David Wilson are wonderful deep dives into the nature of the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest, of the impact of human industrialization on the region, and of magic in this age of modern technology…all through the lens of tarot. Matt is able to dig in and explore the cards while also musing on the changes of the environment and what that means for all of us, human, animal, and plants alike. David’s artwork is gorgeous and clear – together, they’ve developed a deck and a set of essays on the major arcana that have deeply expanded my understanding of the cards.
Matt was able to take some time to answer our questions about his gateway deck and the creation process. I hope you enjoy reading his thoughts as much as we did!
What was your Gateway Deck?
The Pamela Coleman Smith was the first deck. I’d wanted to start with the one all the books seemed to use as the foundation.
What about that deck made you want to stick with tarot?
The layers of symbolism, and variation of emotion. I could see someone could tell a wide range of stories with the cards. As a writer, the idea of a tool that would help me write was very attractive.
How did your Gateway Deck influence your tarot preferences and reading style?
Coleman Smith’s images are still burned in my mind. When I’m reading other cards, I see that deck. I spent a lot of time on those images, matching the cards with places, animals and plants in my landscape.
Do you still read with or have that deck?
Yes, I have it. I don’t read with it a lot, but turn to it for reading family, when the interpretations are going to get specific, when I need something unambiguous.
What are the pieces of you that you’ve imprinted in your cards and/or book?
Everything. Owls that have stared at me, fish I’ve always wanted to catch, cranes I’ve met, wildflowers I’ve seen in the woods in the spring, ducks in a vernal pool along the Ohio & Erie Canal. There is a spider that lived on my kitchen window, a tree that grew in my parent’s backyard, a possum I found creeping under my crawl space. Every image is an experience of living with the more-than-human world in the Upper Midwest.
If your friends were tarot cards, who would they be?
I have a hard time nailing down a single card to represent someone that I have a complex relationship with. I’m married to a woman who is the Queen of Swords, combined with Strength and the Empress. David, my co-creator and artist behind the images is the Knight of Cups and the Eight of Pentacles. My recently deceased grandfather dwells in that in-between space that exists between the Fool and the Magician. I see myself in that space as well. One of my best friends is The Star and Seven of Cups. You almost need two cards at least to build the right tension to describe someone.
What is your favorite or most learned from or most drawn to deck?
I avoided Thoth at the beginning. But I picked it up at a used bookstore in Las Vegas and it’s become my favorite. It felt inorganic to me. I’m especially focused on animals and nature, and so I struggle with is the leap into the supernatural. Symbolism, mysticism, meaning – I’ve tread in that area for a long time. But Lady Frieda Harris’ images bridge the gap into something much more magical that I’m currently focusing on.
What prompted you to create your own deck/book?
I ascribe to a philosophy best described as bio-regional animism. There are lots of people in the folk magic culture like Sarah Anne Lawless, Rebecca Beyer or Gordon White who do a great job of explaining or advocating this worldview. Essentially, it’s the idea that we live in a world made up of experiencing entities, from birds to rivers to trees. A lot of the best nature writing depicts the world in this way, without really acknowledging the magical thinking and co-creation required to describe it. The southern shore of the Lake Erie is not often described in loving terms by environmental writers, and the grandeur of the Rust Belt’s wildlife hasn’t been mythologized in a very long time. The purpose of book and the deck was to re-enchant my landscape.
What is your favorite thing about your creation?
My co-creator David Wilson’s artwork is my favorite part of the project. We have worked together for about ten years and have been encouraging each other’s creativity for almost twenty. I guess my favorite thing is watching people get excited about David’s work, to enjoy one of my best friends’ successes.
Where do you go for inspiration?
I run through the woods, look at birds, try to catch fish. As often as I can, I bring my boys into the creeks, and let them roll in the mud, pick bugs out from behind rotten bark, throw rocks down a ravine.
I travel for my day job and try as often as I can to make it to art museums. I’m currently obsessed with Melanesian art, and the de Young Museum in San Francisco blew my mind.
Also, I read all the time. Annie Dillard, Pattiann Rogers, Robin Wall Kimmerer are my favorite muses.
Tell us about your favorite card, please.
In our deck, The Emperor. I love the image of the bowfin, this ancient thick-bodied fish herding its young into a protective ball. The art in this image is gorgeous, and as a dad I really love the symbolism.
What deck is at the top of your wishlist?
Tarot Mexicayotl by Mexica Heart. I follow him on Twitter and it looks like it will be incredible. I also really want Robert M. Place’s Alchemical Tarot.
What is the most difficult card in your deck, and what is the most difficult card for you to read for yourself?
The Lovers. In the book, we describe a pair of captive Sandhill Cranes that have started mating. One interpretation of the card suggests there is a choice we make – the other interpretation suggests a lack of choice, to be swept up by forces larger than ourselves. The captive cranes are bound together by circumstance and wire mesh, driven to an unsatisfying union by their biology. I don’t want to project too much of my own issues on these birds, but I feel like they reflect the challenges all partners face in relationships, especially with kids. The card doesn’t give much of a resolution.
Which card do you most identify with?
Definitely The Magician. In my deck, The Magician is a fisherman. I’ve been a fly fisherman almost my entire life, which is to say a liar. The lie is an act of creation. A deception creates an opening, a crack between worlds – prying a space between what is perceived and accepted, and what might be imagined and possible. In the tarot tradition, the Magician blurs the line between hero and con man. Every serious angler I know falls somewhere on that continuum. As an angler, I am looking for a connection, an acknowledgement or response from nature. I am imposing meaning and causality on a random world. I am deciphering the hidden relationships between rainfall, the current’s swirl over a boulder, the amount of sediment in the water, and the likely behaviors of animals unseen.
Do you find that tarot pops up in unexpected places?
I don’t see tarot in unexpected places, but my goal is to push it into unexpected places. A lot of the people I feature in my book are serious scientists and conservation-focused individuals. But there’s a limit to what we can understand, and affect, through materialist, mechanistic worldview. No one in our society is changing anyone else’s heart or mind with logic. Having more facts isn’t going to change the course of our eco-cidal economy. I’m trying to inject the field of conservation biology with myth and meaning, to help us come up with better answers to the intractable problems we face around species loss and other environmental degradation.
What is your favorite part of the creation process?
Very early on in the project, I was spending tons of time in the woods around the Cuyahoga River valley, meditating on the cards’ meanings. And all around me, I would notice the world reflecting the images or ideas I was exploring back to me. I’ve gotten into that state (which lasted maybe a week or two) a handful of times in my life and these are some of the happiest periods I can remember. The universe is always carrying on a conversation with itself. Pay it any amount of attention and its intelligence appears. Almost nothing I wrote in that period made it into the book. It’s hard to describe something mystical and ephemeral as a feeling. Annie Dillard could do it. I can’t.
Where do your interests lie outside of tarot?
Nature, writing and raising my boys. Fishing when I can.
What are things you’d like us to know about upcoming works?
We moved from Cleveland to North Carolina about 18 months ago, and I’ve been working to embed myself in a new ecosystem. I desperately miss my family and friends and the nature of Ohio, but I’ve been working on new projects in the same vein, trying to find the story in the landscape. I’m not working through the lens of tarot but using other facets of magic to interrogate the plants and animals around me – sigils, theurgy, synchronicity, the magic of naming – all while keeping my friends who are bryologists and fisheries managers reasonably onboard. I’m working with David on illustrations for these essays and hope to pitch publishers on a new book when the idea coalesces a bit more.
You can find me here https://twitter.com/LakeErieFlyFish
And David here https://twitter.com/DownpourStudio