Mar 16, 2017
The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies: or, What Can Tarot Cards Tell Us about Climate Change?
On a Friday afternoon late last August, Brooklyn-based artist James Leonard installed his Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies in a small room at Collar Works, an art space in Troy, New York. Starting around 5 PM, people of all ages trickled into the reclaimed warehouse for the evening’s opening. Small children darted around, their shrieks echoing across the concrete floors, while their parents talked; small groups ranging from 20-somethings to retirees clustered around the hors d’oeuvres and the bar.
An older couple approached the Tent first. Together, they looked like a vacation: her in a leaf-patterned jacket, all aquas and greens, him in a Hawaiian-style shirt spangled with martinis. They paused to read the sign propped in front of the Tent:
This is the Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies—
a portable sacred space for contemplating the impacts of CLIMATE CHANGE and correlated ENVIRONMENTAL CRISES.
The title comes from the devotional paintings pinned to the Tent’s exterior, which depict various species whose natural rhythms—phenologies—are being affected by climate change. Inside, the sign explained, Leonard offered free CLIMATE CHANGE DIVINATION READINGS on a first-come, first-served basis.
Another man walked by and peeked at the sign. “I’m terrified!” he said brightly before heading toward the bar.
The man in the martini shirt entered the Tent: Leonard’s first querent of the evening. From outside, I could see two pairs of knees as the men peered over the table between them, where Leonard laid out the three tarot decks among which he asked each querent to choose. A hand-sewn rainbow of recycled fabric—the inner layer of the Tent, representing the spectrum of the chakras—surrounded them. A metal frame carefully draped in off-white marine canvas gave the Tent its domed shape. Though after many tour stops Leonard and his assistant work together with nearly seamless efficiency, installation still takes them about an hour and a half.
The Tent itself is important to Leonard: it mattered to him to construct something both sacred and temporary, a ritual space pitched anew at each stop along the summer tour. The aesthetics appeal to Leonard as a visual artist with decades of experience with installation and sculpture, but he is also mindful of the performative aspect: the image of a traveling tent rolling into town evokes the mythology of Romani (often called “gypsy”) wagons that we often associate with nomads. Over the course of the weekend I spent following the Tent, I also heard it compared to a traveling circus, a wigwam, a blanket fort, an animal den, and a vessel at sea.
When the martini shirt man emerged, 20 or so minutes later, I asked him about the reading. The question he had posed concerned farming in New England—more specifically, water use. His son, he told me, was an organic farmer in Maine. The farm’s well was doing badly. The water level had recently gone from 21 feet down to only three.
“I have a son who’s a farmer,” he said, with a rueful smile. “Now I watch the rain.”
* * *
Leonard’s stop at Collar Works coincided with the opening of a show called “The Partial Observer,” which featured paintings and drawings that, according to the show’s description, “reveal a unique sense of truth in relation to place and time.” Though the Tent joined the show for one night only, the match was a thoughtful one: “truth in relation to place and time” is one way to describe what we’re grappling with as we attempt to come to terms with climate change.
Leonard is careful to point out that what he’s striving for in the Tent is “not just a slumber party trick,” nor is it like “going to New Orleans and having your cards read on the street.” I knew what he meant: last spring I paid $20 for a tarot reading on a candle-lit stoop in the French Quarter. Over the course of about half an hour, the reader dealt five cards at a time for each area of my life until nearly the whole deck lay splayed confusingly before us. She correctly intuited that I was single and had recently dated a musician, but these, I later reasoned, were not terribly far-fetched guesses for a young woman visiting New Orleans alone. She also incorrectly predicted two numbers for the next Powerball jackpot. I was, incidentally, in town for a conference about natural disasters and building resilience.
When I first read about the Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies, I was eager to see how an artist had brought two seemingly disparate interests of mine together: climate change is my greatest concern as both a writer and a human, and I also admittedly partake of some of the occult trends that have found their way into the zeitgeist, particularly among young women. I believe in science, but I also believe that things like tarot cards and horoscopes can be useful tools. And I don’t think, as Emily Witt in the New York Times Magazine recently suggested, that such belief is necessarily at the expense of reason. One of my most practically-minded friends, who rolls her eyes whenever I mention my Saturn return, recently bought a crystal because, she told me, she wanted to remind herself to feel and act the way that people who believe in the power of crystals do. She didn’t expect that a crystal would change her life, but that didn’t mean she had nothing to gain from wearing one.
* * *
The “bolt from the blue” moment that led Leonard to divination and eventually to the Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies came in the form of a cynical remark he made while working on another climate change-related project, “A Kiss for Luck,” in which he gradually carved a boat out from under himself, reducing the whole thing to wood chips. (The fact that the Tent’s appearance evokes boats and sails is no coincidence: the marine canvas that makes up its exterior was used to protect the floor during “A Kiss for Luck.”) He’d been feeling frustrated about climate change skepticism, and he found himself thinking about how that project, which spoke in part to Leonard’s deep concern about sea ice melt, was really about memory and the past. And he thought: “Well, what about the future? What’s our cultural relationship to the future?” And when we consider that future, he found himself thinking, “if we’re not going to listen to climate scientists, we might as well be listening to fortune tellers.”
But what began as a cynical idea turned into something genuine when Leonard realized he was seeking a “real connection to some sort of narrative relationship to the future.” What would happen if we did listen to fortune tellers? What might that offer? This was the beginning of “99 Ways to Die,” an unfinished project in which he sought to find 99 fortune tellers who would tell him about his own death, and which later led him to the Tent. Over time, Leonard moved from seeing fortune telling as our mainstream Western culture generally esteems it—foolish belief, anti-science—to beginning to celebrate it as a ubiquitous cultural practice that “can actually provide a conduit for narrative understanding about our relationship to the future.”
He started with the storefronts, the neon “PSYCHIC” signs, but he eventually found his way into the back rooms of botanicas, basement temples, and private rituals. “It was a path that turned me inside out,” Leonard told me. “And I fucking loved it.”
* * *
In Troy, a young couple with a baby told me their reading was “eerily spot-on”—so much so that they wondered if Leonard could have manipulated it somehow. Kenneth Ragsdale, the artist who curated “The Partial Observer,” described his reading as “weird.” “I’m a skeptic by birth,” he admitted. But Leonard talked as if he’d known Ragsdale fifteen years.
Leonard knew that many people entering the Tent were divination skeptics (and some are also climate change skeptics, though in the settings that welcomed the project—mainly art museums and environmental centers—these were less common). He guessed that about two-thirds of his querents had never done a reading before, or maybe did one years ago. He handled this by talking people through the process, carefully explaining the arrangement of the cards and how he came to his interpretation. As a self-aware middle-aged white man, Leonard was acutely conscious of how his project could come across, so he tried to make it clear he was not there to mansplain, but rather to listen to the cards. “I want people to know that I’m being prompted by a system that’s important to me,” he said, and “for them to not think that I’m just out there spouting my opinions.”
He had some unpleasant encounters with divination skeptics. When Leonard was on tour in Maine, a man in his seventies, who was in many ways “on a similar page” to Leonard in terms of his lifestyle choices, asked him, “Other than your own self-edification, what’s the point of this project?”
Leonard felt deflated. For him, “the notion of self-edification had left the building months ago,” and the project “was more and more feeling like service work.” That man’s cards, Leonard added, suggested that he was nearing the end of his lifespan.
But he didn’t tell the querent that.
“Divination is like a water valve,” Leonard said. “If you’re opening it, and you’re asking to see things that are much bigger, as the diviner you are in this special, sacred role of being the last shut-off valve on a high-pressure water system. And sometimes the pressure gets really, really intense.” When that happens, “it’s up to you to mete out that information in a way that the person in front of you can hear it and tolerate it.” This, Leonard noted, is not the same as sugar-coating. It’s about operating from a position of love and compassion.
That high-pressure system—with Leonard himself as the conduit—goes some ways toward explaining why the tour was so exhausting for Leonard. (He had seemed pretty weary at points during the weekend I followed the Tent, and I wondered if every day of readings wore him down that way. But the effects turned out to have been cumulative: by time I caught up with the Tent, Leonard had already made more than a dozen tour stops. His assistant later told him that the weekend I’d spent with them was the most drained she’d ever seen him.)
But there’s more to it than that: in a traditional divination reading, the diviner casts aside his or her own needs and takes on the burden of whatever the querent brings to the reading. It is, perhaps, a kind of substitution. In the case of Leonard’s readings, however, his own concerns, his own burdens, never really leave him. Though the questions range from broad to very personal—many young women have asked Leonard about having children, though not a single man has—in doing readings about climate change, he is constantly grappling with his own questions, too.
* * *
Leonard has long harbored his own anxieties about climate change, so he keeps up-to-date on the latest science and does his best to live a sustainable, “climate-forward” lifestyle and minimize his own impact: repairing before replacing, striving to keep his carbon and plastic footprints small. He did the Tent tour with a Honda Fit stick shift and purchased carbon offsets for all the miles he drove. He and his wife recently pledged that from now on they will not fly domestically except “for a funeral or to say goodbye to a loved one;” in all other cases, they’ll take the bus or train.
But he felt a particular responsibility to keep himself well-educated on climate change issues for this project. A person doing love readings “should have a really strong social intelligence,” he pointed out, “and have a good understanding of what relationships are in all shapes and forms, and an openness to that.” Likewise, “if somebody’s going to read about the climate, they should have more knowledge than they know what to do with.” Leonard frequently finds himself “listening to talks on glaciology, on ecosystems, trying to read things that are above my reading level” in an effort to keep up with the research.
Sea ice—and the worrisome trends in its annual melt—particularly captivates him. You might not expect that a person who is fascinated by divination would also be deeply preoccupied with sea ice, but I’ve come to see how these interests add up to a coherent whole in Leonard. “It’s fascinating to watch the ice,” he said. This kind of science involves hypothesizing, which means it requires inductive reasoning—which in turn requires intuition. We need data, too, of course, Leonard said, “but we also need to develop robust intuitions” about what’s to come.
The internet, he pointed out, while it has its problems, is an “amazing modern opportunity for the curious mind.” It’s a “library of real-time data,” and Leonard closely follows data regarding sea ice. What started with checking the National Sea Ice Data Center’s graphs and monthly reports eventually led Leonard to blogs and online communities where people are “trying to put aside politics and function as citizen scientists” to engage in nuanced discussion. This can be pretty exciting, he told me. He sees these “ice watchers” as part of a long history of autodidacts in scientific enlightenment.
To Leonard, contemplation and divination represent one way to find meaning; science is another. It all comes down to being curious about the world. And when he talks about the ice watchers, it sounds a lot like the way he talks about divination: “You start seeing things that connect to things that you sort of intuitively know, or had an idea maybe were going on—but here’s something that feels like proof. It feels solid.” We treat the internet like an oracle, seeking truth, validation, verification. It’s not so different from how we treat tarot cards.
The morning after the opening in Troy, I drove to Brattleboro, Vermont, where I found Leonard and his assistant setting up on the lawn in front of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. The day was sunny and hot, and I spent much of it loitering on a shady bench near the Tent, chatting up people who’d just had readings or were waiting for one.
“I would never come for just a tarot reading,” a young climate change activist from the U.K. told me. But he wanted to support the artist who cared enough to do something like this. Besides, “it’s a conversation between two people,” he said, and “that’s how this change in mindset”—that is, toward greater climate awareness—“is going to happen.”
“Is my generation the ‘oh fuck’ generation?” wondered a young woman who turned out to live just a few blocks from me in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Feeling less than fulfilled by city life, she and a friend were spending the summer WWOOFing around New England. She’d felt galvanized by Bernie Sanders’s campaign (“it was just radical enough so people could wake up”) and was now focused on changing her personal reality to match her values. She worried that millennials were wringing their hands but not taking enough action.
“Everyone’s so traumatized,” she told me. “We need healing.” This was before the election. “Love for the self and love for the earth are really interconnected,” she said, sounding more earnestly concerned than any Brooklynite I’d encountered besides Leonard himself, “and we’re losing both.”
Over the course of the summer and early fall, Leonard did about 500 readings. In the readings, he told me, he realized that people were “encountering and finally accepting things that they’ve already known in certain ways.” The Tent creates a space for that: the cards provide a framework with built-in constraints, and the reading becomes a jumping-off point from which to navigate impasses, to talk about things that are difficult to talk about. “That’s really complicated and special, to be in a space with somebody when they’re doing that,” Leonard said. “It’s kind of a privilege.”
On one of his stops, Leonard read cards for the director of an environmental education center. Now in his sixties, this man had been an environmental activist in one way or another since he was thirteen. He started crying before he even asked his question. He turned to his wife, who was in the Tent with him, and said, “I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know why I’m like this. I’ve done this all my life and I didn’t realize how much I cared about it.”
Another one of Leonard’s most profound reading experiences occurred with someone associated with a new wing being built at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. “It’s on a floodplain; what’s going to happen when sea levels rise?” she asked. How will the Kennedy Center be used when it can no longer serve as a performance venue? Leonard saw in the cards a suggestion of the arts and entertainment going away, replaced, perhaps, by some sort of organized ritual connected to our relationship with the planet, water, and dryness. Sea walls were being built into the architecture, the woman offered.
Between what the woman already knew and what Leonard found in the cards, a “cli-fi narrative” began to emerge: together they imagined a human-activated ritual to shut the sea walls, people finding their way there during king tides, in the future when king tides will be much more frequent. The place could provide a public opportunity to mourn, a pocket of dry land, when everything else is flooded, for ritualistic practice. Will that actually happen? Who knows, but Leonard feels it’s useful for us to “try to understand and imagine us in those timescales—we’re not doing that enough.”
Leonard sees the need to build “the beginnings of some sort of life-raft culture,” a bridge that will carry us to the culture that’s going to have to live with the realities of climate change. He has gotten “a lot of feedback from the cards about needing to form some sort of new ethic.” Many of the readings he’s done come down to questions of ethics, morals, how to be a good person in the face of what’s ahead. How we hash that out, Leonard noted, is not necessarily the work of scientists. It may not be the work of fortune tellers, either, but maybe there is something a little bit magical about what happens when two people sit down together with a set of cards to guide the conversation. Tarot cards can’t tell us everything about the future of our climate, but they can help us begin to imagine it.
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