The Procession of the Species, a yearly, dearly-loved event that happens in tandem with Earth Day and Arts Walk, has many supporters in the Olympia community. At The Evergreen State College, educators Cynthia Kennedy and Terry Setter are integrating it into their class, Awakening the Dreamer. They recently asked Eli Sterling, founder of the Procession, to speak to students in preparation for their class contribution to its upcoming 19th season. The students will be offering service time at the community studio and, creating their own costumes, will eventually become part of the Procession. Eli invited me to attend the class and learn more about the Procession.
The class began with the viewing of a new film created by local filmmaker, Marc Sterling. This lovely nine minute film titled Procession–Year of the Heart, presents beautifully edited footage of the 2012 Procession, both from the evening Luminary Procession and the following daytime event dancing through the streets of Olympia. Weaving together scenes of costumes and studio preparations with Marc’s original music score, and thoughtful narration from an interview with Eli Sterling (no relation to Marc), the film takes its viewers directly to the feeling foundation of the Procession, to its loving, joyous heart. We see participants in the studio create their costumes and other creations, and then take them out onto the streets of Olympia in procession–both in the evening, with lit-up lantern creations highlighting an anteater and a huge praying mantis, to the event the following day with thousands of people participating and in attendance. It is a fine testament to the deep love so many people hold for this unique creative endeavor.
Speaking to the students, Eli began by pointing out that when he first started the Procession of the Species he saw a 20-year commitment to the process, thinking of the first five years as The Year of the Mask, the second five as The Year of the Dance, the third as The Year of the Voice and the fourth five years, of which this year’s Procession is a very appropriate part, as The Year of the Heart. I say “appropriate” because from the state of things on our planet these days, ‘heart’ is what is clearly needed! And that is what Eli Sterling and the Procession of the Species have been bringing to the streets of Olympia, and everyone who participates, whether processioner or observer, for almost 19 years.
As Eli spoke, however, I saw the burden he has carried in order to bring this not-so-small piece of joy to us. Between concerns over potential City permit fees and assigned charges for police and sanitation, the constant pressure to come up with considerable, yet not-so-available, funds to keep operations going between Processions, and his desire to impart to the community its true meaning, Eli has been, for the last 19 years, carrying behind the scenes, a rather weighty burden. He does admit, however, that in spite of it all, “things come to us” as each year the community rallies to make it happen.
A perfect example of this community spirit came this year when Joe Illing, who watched the first Procession in 1995 from his downtown office and has admired it for years, recently read a newspaper article and learned of the financial struggle involved in keeping it running. Inspired to be of service, he offered an empty property downtown for art studio use for two months, rent-free (the Procession will pay utilities and insurance). That space, at 406 Water St. SW, has already been named the “Butterfly Annex,” and will house the batik studio, where wings, smocks and other creative costuming will be produced. Another satellite studio, located at 600 4th Ave. E, has been dubbed the Whale Annex. This larger space, owned by Steve Cooper and managed by his daughter, Erica, has also been offered to the Procession under very generous terms, and will have room for larger projects.
When Eli first conjured up the notion of the Procession, he thought he was moving away from his dedication to social justice toward environmental protection. He is now finding that there is no way to get away from speaking out about how we all treat each other, our fellow creatures, and the Earth. “What pushes environmental degradation is social injustice,” Eli said clearly. And at the very heart of the Procession is the deep desire to speak for the species who depend on conscious human intervention to stay the onslaught of environmental degradation now sweeping our planet–threatening not only our home, but the homes of so many creatures who share this precious spinning ball of dirt with us.
Ann Pelo, outreach volunteer, recently told me a story that speaks to how this works for participants of the Procession. Andrea Verschuyl was a child of the early Procession, often joining her parents in the studio and on the street. As she reached high-school age, she thought she would no longer be participating.
“Then the BP oil spill happened,” Ann said, “and with it came the devastating images of damaged and dying wildlife–images of oil-soaked birds too heavy to fly, dead fish suffocated by oil flooding the shoreline, images that called for our grieving witness and for action. Andrea carried those wrenching images to the Procession Art Studio, where she worked for weeks to create a five-foot tall cormorant, one side bright-eyed and ready to fly, the other side dead. She turned to the Procession to give voice to her grief and anger, to say, ‘Look at this precious and ruined life.’ She turned to the Procession as an act of witness, and to invite witness from others. After spending her childhood with the Procession, Andrea turned to it as a young adult, understanding that art in community–the “cultural exchange with the natural world” that the mission statement speaks to–is a necessary response in moments of calamity, like the Gulf oil spill, just as it is a necessary response in moments of joy.”
Carrying this idea of becoming a “witness,” Eli often speaks of the many indigenous people in our world who have a tradition in which their decisions about the future are based on a question they ask themselves–What are the possible ways that this decision might affect the next seven generations? In attempting to answer this question, as Eli explains it, they create a story covering not just the recent past and what lies in front of their noses, but a story that takes responsibility for the welfare of all who follow after them for seven generations forward in time–a story that establishes a game plan. “They say ‘this is how we do it!’ and they set a responsible course,” Eli says when speaking of those who still move this way in our world, then adds that “our environmental movement has been speaking out for the planet and its creatures, including us humans, for many decades now. But somehow, because we have failed to set a cultural foundation for it, the movement has not been able to create a story that spans so many lifetimes. We have become very short-sighted in our perception of reality. And because we have become so proficient with denial, attempting to mentally erase our past, we make it impossible to see into the future.”
For now, The Procession of the Species lives in the minds, hearts and creative spirits of all who love it. Can we find a way to create a new story that will allow this healing event to live for us seven generations from now? Will it be allowed to do the job Eli Sterling set out for it to do so many years ago? Will it come to be seen as a force to recon with?
Desdra Dawning writes for the Olympia Food Co-op Newsletter and Works In Progress. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University.
The Procession of the Species Celebration website can be found at www.procession.org/.