Urban Ecology and Animism in the Landscape of the Great Lakes

2019-01-16T14:13:57+00:00December 26th, 2018|

Authors Matt Stansberry and Gavin Van Horn recently published books on the urban wildlife of the Great Lakes region (Rust Belt Arcana: Tarot and Natural History in the Exurban Wilds by Belt Publishing, and The Way of the Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds by University of Chicago Press, respectively). In this wide-ranging conversation, Stansberry and Van Horn discuss the overlaps in each other’s books and the progress, challenges, and joys of living with and writing about nature in the industrial Midwest. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Gavin Van Horn: It strikes me that using the Major Arcana of Tarot is more than just a wonderful structural conceit. You’ve offered an invitation to think about other species with both a conventional natural history lens (description, facts, and figures) and a more mystical understanding. What is it about Tarot that can help us understand our relationships to other species?

Matt Stansberry: You rightly pick up on what initially drew me to combine these topics. I needed a structure. But what merging Tarot and Natural History does is give the animals and plants we live with a sense of personhood. I do not use that term in an anthropomorphizing way, suggesting that animals are human, but rather animistically—that animals and plants are experiencing entities like us with a subjective consciousness. When we see our lives in parallel with the more-than-human world, it creates a sense of empathy, and also wonder.

GVH: You’ve looked to the Major Arcana [22 trump cards of importance] for this book. Is the Minor Arcana next? What didn’t make it into the book from the other cards?

MS: There’s something in the structure of the cards of the Major Arcana that allows them to stand alone as an experience or a story. In fact, you could argue that the Major Arcana and Minor Arcana were developed separately as different systems and subsequently merged. And a lot of the previous generation’s tarot books that I enjoy were published in two parts. I would write part two covering the rest of the deck if readers asked for one!

The structure of the rest of the deck created to accompany Rust Belt Arcana is symbolic­­—wands are trees, cups are flowers, swords are birds and pentacles are insects. Two of my favorite minor arcana cards are the Four of Wands, which features a Tulip Poplar in bloom. It has these four-lobed leaves that make it distinctive. We had one in the backyard of my childhood home, and it was one of the first trees I ever learned to identify as a species. The card means celebration, completion and a return home. Another favorite is the Six of Cups. The card pictures a Black-eyed Susan, a native meadow plant related to sunflowers. It was my mom’s favorite flower, and it represents looking back to happier times in the past.

GVH: So there are many fascinating elements to this book, but there is also a lot of straight-up natural history. In most of the essays, you provide marvelous tidbits of information about various creatures. But I really enjoyed how, in the chapter entitled “The Fool,” you attempt to take on the perspective of a bear. How has writing this book helped you to experience nonhuman perspectives and give voice to them?

MS: That’s where the structure becomes useful. The natural history details are incredible and are the basis of how the story is told. They are how the connections and comparisons are made between the card and the species. So once that part was finished, we can embody the animals and the cards. I can understand the Archetype of The Fool, and then embody it, imagining myself as a young bear; a reflective, out-of-place, hungry entity. We can understand the archetype of The Emperor as the protective father, and then consider how we might experience fatherhood as a bowfin fish in Lake Erie, guarding our brood of tiny offspring.

GVH: Funny, you write that each user of Tarot cards projects their own experiences upon them. I say a very similar thing in my book about the poetry of the Tao Te Ching (the words take on new meanings depending on the experiences/contexts we bring to them). As I see it, Tarot can help us pause and reflect. The cards serve as prompts for self-examination, urging us to dig a little deeper into our inner motivations and witness how those motivations line up with our everyday experiences. But I love how you map other animals and plants onto the cards. Animals, as Levi-Strauss famously said, are “good to think with.” They are alike and different from us, and, I expect, before all anthropomorphizing was banished as unfashionable, other creatures were defining of our daily lives in ways that are now somewhat lost to most of us.

There are other moments of non-Tarot-based magic in the book. Fishing in particular, but hunting, too, come up as ways that you find rituals of connection to the natural world. How is fishing a form of magic? How can these kinds of activities create more attention, presence, care?

Rust Belt Arcana coverMS: I grew up as a writer in the hook-and-bullet publishing scene. I was hunting and fishing with my dad and brother all my life, so I know that form of ritual and magic better than almost anything else. There is no more direct way to experience the mind of another species than to pursue it.

One of my favorite authors gets it right: “Every day we foreclose one life over another, a never-ending triage, a constant choice of who will suffer so that we may live,” Ted Kerasote writes in Bloodties: Nature, Culture and the Hunt. “Hunting attaches me to this place and the animals I love, asking me to own what each of us ought to own in some personal way—the pain that runs the world.” The commercial culture of hunting and fishing is morally bankrupt, and the industry encourages the worst aspects of our nature. But to pursue these activities with reverence is incredibly powerful.

GVH: You mention exploring with your children several times (one chapter that stands out in this respect is “The Hermit”)—searching for turtles, mushroom puffballs, fireflies, fishing. I wonder if you could speak to how being a father has impacted your perspective (the way you write, what you hope to impart, your view of the future)?

MS: Fatherhood helped break me out of the limited view of hunting and fishing as the only way to interact with wildlife. Those activities demand total focus, and almost a tunnel vision, a search image. You limit your inputs to better respond to cues of your quarry. It is incredibly difficult to hunt or fish in a way that might satisfy a twenty- or thirty-something adult with a small child in tow. So you have to adapt, and in that adaptation to having my boys with me all the time, I started seeing more of what is actually there in nature.

When you drop the search image (that mental mode vigilantly watching for a deer’s silhouette, or a specific shape of an eddy in the river), and look at the totality of the world around you, you find so much more going on, there’s so much to participate in. It also gives you a license to bring childlike wonder back into your own life. And as you start to find more things, you realize how little we actually know or recognize in our day-to-day lives, in terms of the species and biological processes going on around us.

GVH: Some of the book is about holding on to what remains, trying to live in a way that allows others to live (such as when you write about box turtles or salamanders). But there are also expressions of hope in the book, particularly when it comes to meeting people who are hard at work on restoration projects. I’m thinking here of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s work at Mentor Marsh, and also the lessons you glean from Tim Jasinski of Lights Out Cleveland. Could you tell us a little bit about those projects? And perhaps the strides you see in the Rust Belt to respond with care to the land and water, which you call “holy work”?

MS: Those two chapters show different approaches to dealing with our impacts on wildlife. The first chapter you reference, “Temperance,” explores the effort needed to restore one of Lake Erie’s largest wetlands back into a functioning ecosystem. It’s inspiring because of how daunting the task must have seemed—to try to remove hundreds of acres of nearly impervious invasive reeds. After years of sustained, systematic effort and investment, we are seeing a return of biodiversity to this site.

“The Tower,” a chapter featuring Lights Out Cleveland, looks at personal empathy and efforts as a way to improve lives in the non-human world. Jasinski and a band of volunteers wake at ungodly hours for the spring and fall months, to recover dead and injured birds from the sidewalks of downtown Cleveland, struck down by the light pollution of our skyline along their migratory path. In the fall of 2017, Jasinski’s team recovered, rehabilitated and released 600 individual birds. In a world facing a lot of bad news for wildlife, we need these other stories.

GVH: You end with “The World” card and reflections on what E.O. Wilson has called the “Age of Loneliness” (the Eremozoic Era). After detailing the historic superabundance of biological life in Ohio, you say, “I want to leave you with the impression that our home has a potential to be one of the wildest, most fecund places on the planet… I tell you these things to repeat the names, so that you know that they are there. …There is still plenty of time to roll in the dirt in a forest. Stare out at Lake Erie. Listen to the wind. Don’t live separately from the world. Don’t despair.” What kinds of practices would you recommend for connecting to the magic of the everyday?

MS: So you mention a bunch of good ideas right there. Roll in the dirt. Stare at the lake. Since finishing the book, I’ve read The Enchanted Life by Sharon Blackie, and it’s full of so many brilliant ideas that I’ve been trying, ways to make myself more grounded in the place where I live. We can learn the myths of our home regions, draw big maps of the places we live and hike, plant gardens with native species, craft objects and food out of the plants around us, name the species of birds, start re-enchanting the landscape.

Since finishing the book, I’ve been swept up by broader magical study. There are so many amazing books and ideas out there, and while a lot of the ideas are silly, there are plenty of brilliant folks writing from an esoteric worldview, reaching toward nature in a way that’s concrete, accurate, and detailed.

Jan Fries writes in Visual Magick, “When we remember that we select our reality, we may remember to select a reality worth living in.” It might sound loopy, but participating in the world in this way is so fun and healthy.

GVH: I see a lot of overlaps in our two books. We both think natural history, as you put it, “helps us to find our place in the landscape, to know our home and ourselves.” I’m interested in the latter, which is less obvious. We also overlap with our characterization of Coyote as Trickster: “In Tarot tradition, the Fool is an innocent wandering through the world, a traveler represented by the number zero, without attachments, a being of continuous movement and physical needs. We identify with the Fool. He is the best and the worst of us.” We both write about reaping what is sown, the “temporary and tenuous gluttony” (to use your words) of late capitalism. And we ask how we might rebalance the scales, while losing some of the “weights.”

MS: I see a lot of overlaps in our work as well. For example, both of our books center around the study of urban wildlife, animals in the city. You write: “When the city presses in upon me, coyotes remind me of the vitality that weaves its way between the buildings. Humans may often disregard, displace, and disrupt other kinds of animal life, but the anima of what we now call Chicago is not gone. The coyotes keep it flowing; they keep going along, beckoning us toward greater fidelity with our non-human kin. Lead on coyotes. Show what a city can be.”

Engaging with urban wildlife is not something you expected to be doing, and not something historically that has been of interest to the science/naturalist community. What do you learn from studying city creatures that you don’t learn in more rural or wild environments?

GVH: You learn that the city is not the antithesis of wildness. For some reason Jeff Goldblum’s character from Jurassic Park is in my head on this particular point: “Life finds a way.” I think one of the greatest barriers we face, when it comes to valuing our cities as biodiverse lifeworlds, is perceptual. I wouldn’t want to discount the way urban infrastructure and impermeable surfaces can impact other creatures; however, the threads of green and blue woven throughout most cities provide homes for adaptable creatures, migrating creatures, and creatures that thrive in proximity to human presence. A primary assertion in the book is that, along with the diverse wildlife that is already present, cities can become more hospitable places of cohabitation.

A city constitutes one portion of a landscape continuum. Occasionally in the book, I venture outside of city limits, acknowledging that many species don’t do well in smaller patches of habitat and with human presence (hell, I don’t do well with continual human presence). Yet my focus is on “ordinary” and close-to-home creatures as amazing expressions of life, worthy of our fascination and attention. Familiarity need not breed contempt. Familiarity can be a portal into our most intimate and meaningful relationships. Several essays feature ecologists and biologists who are turning back toward the city with curiosity and scientific rigor, seeking to counter the story of urban nature as less-than-worthy. I suppose I’m doing something similar with my writing.

MS: In one of my favorite essays, “De los pajaritos del monte” you marvel at your friend’s lifelong connection—physical, familial, cultural—to a landscape. You’ve moved around the country, the same way I have, and seem to struggle with that rootlessness. I think we both envy what your friend has with his home landscape. Can you write your way into place? Is even one lifetime enough to get rooted?

GVH: One lifetime, so far as I know, is all we’ve got, so I hope that’s enough to actualize one’s ecological citizenship. As you know, this book was part of my own process of adapting to life in an urban area. Writing is a way to further deepen the bonds of memory, to invite others (and perhaps yourself) to see the world from a fresh perspective. It’s an alchemical process—to transform experience into ink, and then for readers to permit those words to conjure new worlds in their imaginations. And the hope is that those stories, then, shape how a person moves through the landscape and the way they value it.

But the question of roots is one that haunts me a bit, in all honesty. I’m a person that has lived in many places. Some of us are more nomadic in spirit; some landscapes make our hearts sing more than others. What if a person feels displaced—like a plant outside of the microbiome to which it is most suited—and no amount of spiritual equanimity or sheer amount of time spent in a place can create a sense of at-homeness? That said, the question of roots is a question of connection, a relational intertwinement, of both absorbing and being absorbed by a landscape. The search unfolds only as we enter into conversation with a place. We begin and continue that conversation, I think, by recognizing a place as alive, full of other-than-human ways of being and intelligences, full of their own desires and will to be. Maybe the more important question is less about whether or not we are “rooted” and more about whether or not we’re good guests and neighbors in a common landscape that is gracious enough to host us for a time.

MS: Eye contact with non-human animals plays a role in your book and mine. Eyes are this entry point for me into an animist view. What is it about that eye contact? Can you describe it?

The Way of Coyote - CoverGVH: There can be something unsettling about being watched, being observed. Eye contact with another animal can shatter the all-too-typical distinction many people maintain between humans and our nonhuman kin. Our assumed “I” and their “it” are thoroughly disrupted. Too often, we stare out of our own eyes as though we are staring through a one-way mirror, one in which we can see the person on the other side yet they can’t see us. When other animals turn our way and regard us with their gaze, whether that look is suffused with curiosity, fear, or indifference, that one-way mirror breaks into pieces. We see that there is a subject, like us, returning our gaze—and that the world, it follows, is full of other subjectivities. I love the line from Pablo Neruda: “I’m tired of chickens— / We never know what they think, / and they look at us with dry eyes / as though we were unimportant.” Bron Taylor calls the powerful impacts of a mutual gaze with another animal “eye-to-eye epiphanies,” and it is not an uncommon story for those who feel compelled to devote their lives to the well being of other animals to have had some moment (or moments) of this kind of mutual gaze that set their path. Think Aldo Leopold and the green fire of the mother wolf.

MS: You have a chapter exploring Aldo Leopold’s concept of the numenon of the north woods, the ruffed grouse. You suggest Chicago’s numenon is the Night Heron? What’s a numenon and what’s a night heron?

GVH: “Numenon” is a term Leopold borrowed from Pyotr Ouspensky, a Russian mystic, who, in turn, borrowed it from philosopher Immanuel Kant. Phenomena are those things that are available to our senses, the physical properties of a thing. Numena are the imponderables, the slippery undercurrent that creates wildness, aliveness, wholeness. In Leopold’s writing, numenon means something like the incarnated “spirit of place,” an animal that represents the essence of a landscape. To lose that animal would be to lose the “motive power” of a place, what holds it all together—if not literally, as a keystone species, than figuratively, as its most compelling icon of what that place feels like. Perhaps, like the Tarot, we could say the numenon is the archetype of a place, a place’s Major Arcana. People will have to read the book to see why I think the Black-crowned Night Heron is the numenon of Chicago.

MS: The story of our two cities feels similar—in arc, if not scale. Do you feel that Chicago is better or worse (in reference to the well-being of wildlife) today than it may have been for our parents’ generation?

GVH: As one young man who does ecological restoration work on the South Side of the city told me, “It’s a getting better Chicago.” He’s right. A lot of Midwestern cities, like Chicago, are in what is sometimes called a post-industrial phase. Heavy industry—and its heavy impacts—are better regulated or have collapsed. This is not without its own disruptions, but it has allowed an opening for reconsidering the purpose of a city, as well as taken a good deal of direct pressure off of wildlife. So, for example, the Chicago River, a river that had been more or less an open sewer since European settlement, is now seeing wildlife return—beavers, herons, all variety of fish, turtles, even mink. The recovery is tangible. Since the early 1960s, volunteer restoration groups have been banding together throughout the city and the suburbs to restore prairies, savannas, and forests, focusing on native species. From the perspective of twenty-first-century business, attracting people to the city means “amenities”: parks, open spaces, healthy street trees, beautiful waters. Wildlife benefits from all those greening efforts. So, yes, though ecological health is uneven in the city, it is better overall than a generation ago. The exciting thing is to think about how to further integrate a city into the larger cycles of the natural world, to consider the city as part of a greater organic whole, which of course it is.

MS: Do you struggle with the darkness of living with ecological destruction? What keeps it at bay?

GVH: Do I struggle with the darkness? Sure. That’s part of being an empathic human. But it is usually exacerbated when I’m on my Twitter feed for too long. The news can be crippling. Sometimes the self-centeredness of human beings can be astounding; apocalypse seems to be something actively courted by those who have been placed too close to the centers of power. What antidote is there for that? For me, it’s the daily interactions: working with good people and, when I can, lifting up the good actions of others. Far too many stories go untold about the beautiful ways people devote themselves to the well being of other people and other species.

On a very personal level, walking is medicine, particularly when I can walk with my senses open, actively attuned to the varieties of life around me. During these kinds of walks, despair tends to dissipate, replaced by wonder that I—for this short time on the planet, in this small nook of earth—am such a very small part of a greater animate entanglement of life. Such walks are good for reminding me that no one person can, or should, hang the weight of the world on his or her shoulders. The world doesn’t need saviors. It needs lovers. The sun will go down; the moon will come up. The cycles will continue. In the meantime, I will continue to write—in one way or another—of how our own humanness is enriched by our relationships with our nonhuman kin, and that our own healing is contingent upon recognizing and taking pleasure in the many ways of being a creature on this planet.

 

 

Cover image by David Wilson for Rust Belt Arcana.

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