Eli Sterling: The Man Behind the Masque

by Christian Carvajal for OLY ARTS

It’s no exaggeration to call Eli Sterling the visionary behind Olympia’s own Procession of the Species. He produced a series called Earthbound for Thurston County Television in 1991; it went on to win nine Northwest regional and national public-access television awards. Earthbound, says Sterling, “was dedicated to pursuing a more persistent and integrated relationship between environmental policy and cultural appreciation of the natural world. This has been the foundation for all ensuing Earthbound Productions endeavors.” Four years later, the group became a nonprofit and organized the first Procession of the Species. It didn’t take long for the Procession to become, in Sterling’s words, “one of the largest and best-known Earth Day celebrations in the Northwest.” In 2009, Reader’s Digest called the Procession one of the “Things We Love About America.”

“Our mission,” says Sterling, “is to elevate the dignity of the human spirit by enhancing the cultural exchange between communities and the natural world.” About five percent of the Procession’s 25,000 to 30,000 annual guests, he says, travel from out of town. “People come from all over the country. It’s all by word of mouth.”

After graduating from the University of Washington, Sterling was accepted to law school. He also traveled to Micronesia to scuba-dive, then taught cross-country skiing to blind students and served two years as a public defender. Upon visiting coral reefs, he says, “I saw how beautiful the world really was and what was at stake. I hitchhiked around the world, and in India, I really learned what white privilege was.” After a time working construction, he spent two years in the Middle East “hitchhiking and walking around on Mount Moses (i.e., Sinai). I was up there by myself watching the sunrise…When you’re up there, you’re not watching the sunrise, you are watching the earth turn. There’s no doubt about it.” When locals arrived to eat their lunch, leaving garbage behind, Sterling learned “if people can look in the face of infinity, make prayers to heaven and then trash the earth, then I no longer was a social justice person. I decided to come back and be an environmentalist.”

As founding director of Earthbound Productions, Sterling is still overseeing every aspect of the Luminary Procession and Procession of the Species after 22 years. “It doesn’t have to be high art,” he says. “It has to be about kinship with the earth…We’re far more willing to protect what we create than what we consume. Other people have great investment in breaking down that kinship…We need to get this idea that we can still be emotional about the environment. That counts. It’s a mistake to go purely on science…Our culture resides in our conversation, so whoever can control the dynamic of the conversation controls the culture. This has been characterized as a ‘greener,’ hippie event, but those aren’t the people who show up. This is our community campfire.”

What: Eli Sterling

Where: Procession of the Species,
from Jefferson St. and Legion Way to Water St. and Capitol Way, Olympia

When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 29

How much: free

Learn more: 360-705-1087 | Procession of the Species

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