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What’s at stake for Procession of the Species

As an integral part of Olympia’s celebration of Earth Day, it has a very “fragile” life

The Procession of the Species, Olympia’s yearly one-of-a-kind celebration of the natural world, held in conjunction with Earth Day and Arts Walk, is in preparation for its 19th year of both joyful revelry and serious creative intent. That intention is to bring deep love of life into the very heart, and onto the very streets, of our city. Once again, people of all ages are filling the Procession studio, their minds dancing with images of the creatures they love and wish to protect. Following their own inspiration, they are creating costumes from the donated, recycled, and purchased materials they find in the free community art studio.

Olympia school classrooms are bustling with teachers and children learning about the sea and its watery inhabitants, the air that surrounds us with its winged community, or the life that runs, crawls, digs, and slithers on our precious planet, and even the sun, who makes all of this possible. Costumes, deeply representational to the actual chosen creature are emerging from piles of encyclopedias and photographs, and both children and grownups are being given the gift of getting to see how wonderfully creative, joyful and uninhibited adults can really be. As Eli Sterling, loving parent of the Procession, puts it, “This is an adult event where kids are welcome. When kids see all these adults dancing, playing music, and doing art in a public setting, they think, ‘Oh! That’s what adults do. I don’t have to be embarrassed by that!’”

I recently shared a conversation with Eli Sterling and a volunteer/participant who does community outreach for the Procession, Ann Pelo. Looking out over Budd Bay and the marina that hosts those big log-laden ships, I was struck by the sheer enthusiasm and deep love I share with them for this place, its people, and most of all, the sweet world of nature greeting us out of the window.

From our vantage point, Eli was able to point out the exact spot where the Procession was conceived-on the beach just west of Swan Town Marina. It was during his days at The Evergreen State College, he said, working toward a Master’s Degree, walking the beach, that he came upon a sign with skull and crossbones, offering a warning not to eat the clams buried there, due to “polluted water.” (That, by the way, was almost 20 years ago and, sans the pirate icon, that sign still exists on the shores of Budd Bay.)

Standing in the midst of diamond sparkling water, seeing the Olympic Mountains in the distance, he realized in that moment that even “our icons of the natural world —gorgeous snow-capped mountains, sunny blue skies—are not enough to motivate us to a greater level of responsibility.” Inspired to take action, he formed Earthbound Productions and began his journey in this community-gently, creatively, joyfully inviting and encouraging us all to come alive to the cornucopia of amazing life that teems around and in us.

The Procession, while it has a life of its own, also has, as Eli puts it, a very “fragile” life. As it grows, the challenges to its integrity grow stronger. Commercialism, antithetical to the deep purpose of the Procession, gnaws hungrily at its skirts. And while it is “appreciated in positive gratefulness by the community for its beauty, originality and creativity,” Eli points out that it is also most “under-appreciated in the understanding of what it actually does and what’s at stake.” And what is at stake?

That can be found in the mission of the Procession: “To invite the community in elevating the ultimate dignity of the human spirit by enhancing connections in the natural world, focusing on imagination, creation and sharing as a cultural exchange as opposed to an entertainment event.”

It is this conscious stance, rooted in spiritual awareness, that sets the Procession apart from the consumer world, inviting us all, participants and onlookers alike, to regain our genuine innocence, open to the world around us, and embrace the ‘what is’ of our lives in loving acceptance. And yet, it is this very stance that adds to the fragility of the Procession. Eli’s message is clear: there is an innocence and authenticity at stake. He explains, “Something in the Procession still sparks that space. Understanding how we arrived at that genuineness and innocence, how to protect it and what will compromise it is what is evolving.”

In order to provide continuity, avoid compromise, and insure the integrity of the Procession, Eli is adamant about preserving three simple dynamics: no written words, no live pets, and no motorized vehicles. Over the years, these have been challenged-by folks wanting to make a statement or get their petition signed, by pet-lovers who want their dogs, snakes, or ferrets to join them, and no doubt by people wanting the traditional “floats.” This, however, is no ordinary “parade”—a label that speaks, to Eli, of commercial entertainment and a “look at me” approach to the moment. “When people conquer,” he observes, “they parade; when people are liberated,” and sharing themselves with their community, “they process.”

The Procession, then, is “really about the beauty of the human dynamic.  It isn’t about us, but about how we are a part of miraculous nature. It invites participants to come not in their costumes but in their awe and appreciation of the natural world, and to participate from a desire to share born out of the creative relationship that springs from collaborative art.” It invites us to liberate ourselves.

So by standing firm in complying with these three rules, the Procession has been able to, so far, survive the tests of time relatively uncorrupted by what he calls the “comparative reality” so alive and well in the consumer-oriented world. This reality springs from the everyday world of our rational minds: labeling, evaluating, judging, assigning worth, creating products that can be sold and consumed. It is from this place that “parades” are formed. What we have in the Procession is a safe place to free ourselves from that world of comparison.

Ann clarifies this as she points out that participants are able to feel that safety as they share themselves in creative ways because of “the intention of the ‘no words rule’-which is meant to take people out of the sense of being told what to think” (and the need to tell others what to think), “and away from comparing, assessing, and evaluating-which creates an atmosphere of not feeling safe.”

It is this comparative reality mindset, locking participants and onlookers alike into the world of value judgments that if left unchecked, could ultimately turn the Procession into a commodity. By staying consistent, Eli points out, a certain depth is brought to this genuine experience which allows, with repetition and time, the cultivation of public awareness from a taken-for-granted yearly event into a solid community “yes!” for what it is—an experience “filled with joy, generosity, creativity, and ultimately acceptance.”

The no words dynamic has also added implications for the financial funding of this wonderful event, and speaks once again to its fragility. “There are no written words in nature,” Eli points out. “By taking out the words you even the playing field for the corporate dynamic.” As a result of this he adds that “having no corporate sponsorship has had huge repercussions, economically, for us as an organization.” Remaining integral to this stance is no easy task, but it is a huge part of protecting the Procession from commercial compromise. At the same time, it costs to put it on.

A recent audit estimated the full budgetary costs of the Procession to be $150,000. That cost, which includes $45,000 dependent on significant in-kind donations, also involves holding a central office space (rent, light, heat etc.), administrative expenses, printing costs, insurance for the Procession, studio costs (insurance, rental, light, heat, water), and supplies (glitter adds up!). The Procession depends on volunteers, although there are small administrative stipends which don’t come close to appropriate recompense for the full-time work done to keep the Procession vibrantly moving forward each year.

But moving vibrantly along it does. I have been blessed with two Processions now, the first coming a mere two weeks after I arrived in Olympia.  Standing on the street corner, watching it pass by me, photographing every entry, I was filled with a sense of gratitude to be living in such a wonderful place.  It was as if I was standing on a threshold, being invited, with glittery rainbow colors, rhythm and music, dancing, and sheer joyful revelry, to join them.  “This is my new community!” I was thinking. And with that thought, I stepped across the threshold and moved from onlooker at a parade, to joyful participant in a Procession!

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.

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