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How a Tarot Reading Helped Me Talk About Climate Change

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James Leonard’s “The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies,” installed outside the Tarot Society in Brooklyn (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

From headlines on ice cap conditions to research on biodiversity loss to terrifying descriptions of earthquakes yet to occur, the stories on climate change that reach us daily simply overwhelm. In attempt to help us navigate and make sense of all this information, the artist James Leonard has been touring the east coast with a small tent, inside of which he offers people one-on-one climate change divination readings through the ancient practice of tarot.

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Sign outside James Leonard’s “The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies,” installed outside the Tarot Society in Brooklyn (click to enlarge)

I stopped by the canvas tent, known as “The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies” during its one-day pop-up outside the Tarot Society in Brooklyn over the weekend of Bushwick Open Studios. (Future stops this month include Cornell University on October 14 and American University on October 17.) Paintings Leonard made during a residency at MASS MoCA this spring covered its exteriors, highlighting individual flora and fauna affected in some way by climate change, from a bald eagle to the northern whitetail deer. Inside that soft outer shell lay a cozy, womb-like setting, with walls cushioned by clothing arranged by color to form a rainbow. An oculus opened the space to the sky, heightening my awareness of my relationship to this infinitely large world.

While the subject at hand revolves around science, Leonard is quick to stress that his readings, far from personal fortunes, are not intended to replace proven fact and hard data. What emerges in the tent are instead conversations about possibilities: by adopting the tarot reading process as a framework to speak about climate change, his sessions create an opportunity for us to think freely about and openly vocalize issues we find most concerning, and consider how we may begin to resolve them.

Just as in a traditional tarot reading, Leonard’s begins with a question — but here, one that’s climate change related. You may ask him anything non-binary: what your city may look like in 100 years, perhaps, or how we may improve recycling systems. I asked him what my role may be in trying to affect the most positive outcome as I try to navigate threats to our planet. Leonard then had me select from three different decks (I picked the amazing Tarot of the Boroughs, designed by Courtney Weber and George Courtney, which features contemporary photographs of New Yorkers) and asked me to visualize all the challenges I associate with climate change play out on a large movie screen. I envisioned mass migrations, ocean waves as tall as buildings, and sad polar bears on isolated ice sheets. When I was ready, Leonard cut my chosen stack, laid four cards on the table, and read their iconographies in relation to my question.

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The author’s climate change-based divination reading

In this context Leonard asks the querent to see the cards — usually interpreted as blessings and curses — as opportunities and obstacles; what may be revealed and what may be endured; what may be gained and what may be lost. My card showing the five of cups, for instance, suggested an opportunity to find optimism, particularly to help others see opportunity and find agency and hope. “The Star,” Leonard said, echoes a similar notion, indicating that I may help people “start to shine brightly, and together.”

His reading makes sense considering my profession as a writer — someone in a position to communicate information to a mass audience. The prospect of acting on that feels challenging, and I don’t yet know when I would do so, but reaching that moment of the reading felt like a large, satisfying personal exercise in thought and imagination. Rarely do we have spaces for these conversations to grow at our own pace, and Leonard uses the broad language of tarot to invite us to challenge our own insights and have us think about our own futures. It helps to see physical objects in front of you that speak to your fears and anxieties towards a topic as overwhelming and intangible as climate change. You may not necessarily receive any straightforward solutions to your questions, but what I found most successful about Leonard’s tent is how it highlights our own agency. You, the querent, hold power throughout the entire process: you pick and cut the deck, let your diviner know when to begin, and even decide when to end the session.

In the nearly enclosed tent, even with the subway rumbling loudly above us and people and cars passing by, what I received was the opportunity to properly focus on and confront, for the first time in a long time, concerns that usually feel so beyond me. I emerged with my mind a little clearer and feeling less like I am wading alone in a sea of unease.

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James Leonard’s “The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies,” installed outside the Tarot Society in Brooklyn
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Detail of James Leonard’s “The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies,” installed outside the Tarot Society in Brooklyn
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Inside James Leonard’s “The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies,” installed outside the Tarot Society in Brooklyn
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Detail of James Leonard’s “The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies,” installed outside the Tarot Society in Brooklyn
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James Leonard’s “The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies,” installed outside the Tarot Society in Brooklyn
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James Leonard’s “The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies,” installed outside the Tarot Society in Brooklyn
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