Who the hell wrote this thing?

Hola Amigos. There’s been an uptick in interest in Rust Belt Arcana, my first (and currently only) book, published by the women-owned and operated independent Belt Publishing out of Cleveland Ohio in October 2018. I started writing it in October 2016, and frankly I’m a radically different person today and this is a radically different world.

Because a lot of people I like are reading it for the first time (and because Belt is promoting a new coloring book of all 78 cards!), I decided to give it another read myself. I also think it’s worth explaining who I was when I wrote it.

Four years feels like a fucking lifetime ago. In that time span, what I call consensus-reality has broken. And my view of myself, of the more-than-human world, and of the underlying metaphysics behind what makes a divination system work are all totally different.

I published a Zine in early 2020 that talks a little bit about this (and if you don’t have a copy please shoot me a note and I’ll mail you one; help me get rid of these before they’re totally irrelevant).

But largely, the changes in my worldview and the world, from the time I started writing this book are too damn vast to leave unaddressed. Here is a very early draft of the introduction that I wrote in October 2016 that did not make it into the book:

For all of my adult life, I’ve written about animals, plants and landscapes.

I’ve floated drunkenly in the warm surf of the Gulf Coast, stalked the coastal estuaries for the flesh of Pacific salmon, and dug my fingers into the rich humus of the ancient remnant forests of the Midwest. I’ve written natural histories of animal lives.

I feel a spiritual hunger to connect with the non-human, and when I insert myself into the animal community it assuages a deep underlying loneliness.

For the majority of my life I have operated under the assumption of a random, mechanized, insentient world. Raised Catholic, I adopted a lazy agnosticism in my early teens and never looked back. I decided the divine was indemonstrable, unknowable and unimportant.

I married a brilliant woman who bore us three beautiful sons, worked a marketing job to pay off a mortgage and a minivan. It’s a great life. I am thankful.

And yet, I found myself in middle-age unmoored. Nearly every free moment I wrote about connecting my life with animals and nature, trying to find some order or intelligence in this world outside of our own maddening species, running through the woods with a notebook like an over-caffeinated rat. It struck me that I was seeking something spiritual. “Who made the fire and who made the shadow, the blood move and the flesh walk?” asked the poet John Haines.

So much of my life has been driven by chance.

One bleary morning on a layover at O’Hare airport in Chicago, my mind inexplicably leapt to Tarot. I’d never spent more than 30 seconds in my entire life considering occultism – and if you’d asked me to describe the nature of Tarot, I would likely have blurted some clichéd image from a 1980s horror movie. But something in my mind sparked me to wonder whether the images and ideas represented in the cards might match up to images and scenarios in the natural world.

I bought multiple tarot decks. I started reading Rachel Pollack’s books describing the origins and meanings of Tarot cards and cross referencing other authors, and noticed a pattern emerging. The cards seemed to represent archetypes – images illustrating some universal circumstance or experience. It hearkened to Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, suggesting underlying mythic imagery and stories of a collective unconscious.

The concepts behind the cards were rich, and combinations became even more complex. It also seemed to match my developing thoughts on nature.

We trust our perception of the occurrences around us, but we have such a dim, and narrow view of the world. Life is infinitely more complex than we can imagine. Evolution has allowed us to make sense of the world by reducing our inputs, ordering chaos by omission. We have no ultraviolet or chemosensory perception. Most of life occurs on or in the ground – too small for us to even notice. Science allows us to perceive more, but the efforts are blind groping.

Nature selected for our species to be anthropocentric navel gazers, as social interactions with other humans had significant influence on our “evolutionary fitness” or survival. But this myopia comes at a price. Mysteries abound, and forces and intelligences outside of the human sphere flicker at the edges of our understanding – their presence intuited or felt, but poorly understood.

I found the Tarot to be an elegant scaffolding – a way to map and connect my human experience to the living environment. It reflects my subconscious in a way that feels coherent and rooted. Most importantly, Tarot illuminates blind spots in self-awareness. It forces us to confront the ideas and outcomes we avoid.

Each day, I mapped the cards to the environment surrounding forests and waters of the Rust Belt – applying the meanings ascribed to the cards to my knowledge of the animal and plant communities I had studied as a natural history writer. And then I pressed my body against that living world to test whether the meaning resonates and emerges from the landscape.

The results detailed in this book have been revelatory.

I don’t write this as someone who believes in mystic fairies and forest spirits in a cartoonish sense, but rather, as someone who senses another world of intelligences that are largely inaccessible. These observations do not come from yoga instructor living on the rim of the pristine wilderness, but rather from a nature journalist in Cleveland.

I considered the tarot an “elegant scaffolding” and myself a “nature journalist”. All of my friends and contributors to this book were biologists, museum curators, professional naturalists. The book was blurbed and endorsed by people in the natural history field. It was important to me to be respected and I was actually very cagey about explaining the structure of the book to the people I was interviewing.

I am incredibly lucky, always have been. Not just privileged, but something more – the fool wearing the fancy clothes nearly walking off the goddamn cliff. To that end, there is nothing embarrassing in this book.

Also David’s artwork is brilliant and frankly the cards work.

There are flaws. My biggest regret is not interrogating my class-race-colonizer-scientific perspective more. But honestly, I wasn’t ready for that. It’s a really fun natural history book, and miraculously the alignment of the fixed meanings of the cards and the species are solid. In fact, from a metaphysical standpoint, that’s the most important thing in the book – to show how you can and should do something like this in your own environment.

That’s the takeaway here, map your own meaning to the world around you.

If you’re reading Rust Belt Arcana for the first time or re-reading it, I want to thank you.