Under the Sun

The ASU Professor Mashing Up Climate Science and Tarot Readings

The ECOtarot deck is a new spin on an old practice.
The ECOtarot deck is a new spin on an old practice. Edward Cella Art & Architecture

ECOtarot inventor and ASU professor Adriene Jenik likes to say she was born in East Armpit, New Jersey.

“I’m actually from East Orange,” she admitted with a laugh during a phone conversation last Monday. “But I lived in Southern California most of my adult life.” She relocated to Phoenix when ASU recruited her to direct its School of Art in 2009; she stepped down seven years later but retains a part-time faculty position.

“I wanted to continue to develop my art,” she said, “so I divide my time between doing art in Joshua Tree, California, and working with grad students in Tempe.”

Jenik has a longtime awareness of the tarot, she said; her mother worked as a professional psychic for much of Jenik’s adult life. “I mercilessly made fun of her about it,” Jenik said. “But as I got older I realized people need guidance systems.”

In her 20s, Jenik began studying the tarot, reading for people who knew she owned a tarot deck. “I discovered that it shifted some relationships because some people didn’t want to hear what the cards had to say.”

Six years ago, during an artist residency in Italy, the concept of ECOtarot occurred to her. “I was out walking and this whole idea of our climate futures came to me, fully formed. It took me two more years to make the ECOtarot deck, and in 2017 I began offering public ECO-readings.”

click to enlarge Adriene Jenik gives an ECOtarot reading. - ADRIENE JENIK
Adriene Jenik gives an ECOtarot reading.
Adriene Jenik
Jenik’s deck is based on the standard tarot, with the main symbols shifted to reflect what she calls “our climate drama.” She made the deck herself, of agave paper and recycled cotton linen, at the ASU papermill, then showed it to the university’s climate scientists. They approved the project.

“It’s a mashup of climate science with traditional tarot meanings, so 22 of the cards are archetypal — The Lovers, Justice, The Empress, these kind of cards. But other cards I’ve shifted, so The Fool is The Artist, The Chariot is The Bicycle, The Wheel of the Future is The Life Cycle. In the other set of cards, I’ve changed out the typical suits, so the sword is air, the cup is water, the discs are earth.”

Jenik’s deck creates new layers of meaning that reflect and comment on 21st-century ecology. “It’s really a system that uses the tarot as a way to engage about the climate disruption we’re undergoing,” she said. “I see tarot as both an intuitive system and a guidance system, but also as a useful technology to shift our thinking, our grooves of thought.”

She figured she’d done about 1,000 readings, at farmers’ markets and anywhere she could set up a little table and chairs. The pandemic put an end to that. And doing ECOtarot readings via Zoom was quite different, Jenik said. At first, she wasn’t sure she even wanted to.

“It just didn’t make sense to read tarot online,” she said. “Then I was listening to the wonderful ecofeminist Joanna Macy give a talk about what she called ‘the great turning.’ About all the uncertainty in the world right now, with the climate, and politics, and now we have a health pandemic. And I thought, That’s what I want to do — help people through that process of living in uncertain times.”

She found that online ECOtarot reading created what she calls “a certain kind of mindfulness.” Although she is able to concentrate while reading tarot in public, she said, she is always aware of the line forming a few feet away. Online, she could focus more easily on clients with no distractions.

Either way, you never know who’s going to show up. “I’ve had an air conditioning repairman sit down, followed by an engineer of the major solar grid in Australia, then a group of biker chicks get off their motorcycles and sit down, one by one.”

Jenik has lately been thinking a lot about “ecological grief,” which she sees as a kind of anticipatory grief about our environment. “People see what they’re losing,” she said, “and they’re carrying a deep sadness about it. The coral reef is being bleached out, forests and deserts are being stricken by wildfire, there’s a loss of species. We’re learning how to live with that and not let it sink us.”

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to show up in Jenik’s tarot readings. “Always in air cards,” she pointed out, “because COVID is airborne. Readings have changed to reflect the racial reckoning we’ve been going through this year, the issues with land reparations. People are carrying so much. Sometimes they sit down for a reading and just start weeping.”

She expects to see more of that when she returns to in-person ECOtarot readings in the fall. “But that’s the beauty of this practice,” Jenik said. “I’m not just there to engage their minds or tell them what’s going to happen next. Sometimes it’s just about being together while we talk about the world.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela