Processing the Procession

by John Longenbaugh

A Talk with The Procession of Species founder and “Director Guy” Eli Sterling

After a four-year hiatus, the Procession of the Species returns to downtown Olympia this April 26th and 27th as part of Art Walk. If you’ve never attended, you might assume it’s a classic small-town parade with an environmental vibe and plenty of costumes, masks, puppets, music and dancing — and you’d be sort of right.

But to get the real story of why, for example, it’s a Procession and not a Parade, or the reasons for the Three Rules for participants, or why there’s a Luminary Procession at Dusk, you have to talk to Eli Sterling, the creator of the Procession and its “Director Guy.”

Sterling spent years preparing the groundwork for Olympia’s first Procession of the Species in 1995 to celebrate Earth Day and the passage of the Endangered Species Act. From then until 2019, his Earthbound Productions undertook an increasingly massive operation which grew to include over a hundred volunteer teachers, craftspeople, dancers, musicians, designers, painters, videographers and others, along with thousands of participants and many more spectators.

Since its founding every aspect of the Procession has received analysis and evaluation from Sterling and his crew, and the result reflects idealism tempered by realistic experience. Ask about his “Director Guy” title and he’ll talk expansively about refuting traditional hierarchical conventions, while admitting “there has to be someone to get blamed, who’s not at the forefront but takes contributions to the whole, who will answer when the cry goes up ‘Someone, please, make a decision.’”  

Asking him “Why is it a Procession and not a Parade?” also reveals a deeply-considered philosophy —Parades denote conquest, while Processions express liberation. The pre-event workspace is open for seven weeks to reflect Iroquois ideas of “seven generations,” but also to provide time for artists’ friends to join them. Similar seemingly simple questions lead inevitably to deeply involved discussions; a lot of sober thought has gone into what might seem woo-woo or whimsy.

And then there are the Procession’s Three Rules, established at its founding — no written or spoken words, no motorized vehicles, no live pets or animals. Sterling thinks all three were prescient, but particularly the “no words” provision. He recalls his own experience as an environmental activist. “We saw that you can have a voice in the media, but you can never win,” he recalls. “You put up your peace signs, the timber corporations put up bigger signs. We couldn’t compete with language, and we certainly couldn’t compete with money.” As a result, the Procession has created a remarkably rhetoric-free zone in a society increasingly divided and not united by words.

But does all of this admittedly fascinating philosophy translate into what people experience at The Procession? Oddly enough, it seems to, even when the intentionality extends to decisions like not having food booths for the crowds. “We don’t have white food tents, and we don’t sell elephant ears,” says Sterling. “Our ‘white tents’ are the downtown businesses. From restaurants to bookstores to tattoo parlors and the hotels, we want to highlight what’s here year-round.” 

In a similar vein, the colored chalk distributed for writing on the sidewalks not only contributes to the festive atmosphere, but counters fearful narratives of downtown streets as sources only of homelessness and other urban problems.

Even the Luminary Procession is more than a series of gorgeously lit costumes, puppets and masked figures displayed at dusk. “We originally chose it because it’s the twilight hour, the time of consciousness,” explains Sterling. “As things shifted from a one to two-day event, it revealed a second value to the lights, in making people feel safe. When you see lit things, whether it’s Christmas lights or a candle in a window of a church or home, there’s a welcoming spirituality to it.”

This year’s theme is “The Rise of Reflection,” referring to a collective need to reflect on our societies and actions, but also on the value of a Procession itself — and its audience. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t just replicating what it had been prior to 2020,” Sterling says. “A lot of people want to come watch The Procession, and hope that whatever was there before will just show up again. But this year we want people to ask themselves: what are they showing up for, and why?”

It’s got to be something more than entertainment. “Pure entertainment means pure ‘no responsibility,’” he insists. “We let too much of this world become pure entertainment. The hope is to go past entertainment, to give people a sense of individual identity in their community.”

While there’s no written or spoken message in The Procession, the mix and mélange of colors, costumes, music, creatures, dancers, masks and creativity celebrates a lot, including the marvel of our own ecosystem. For both the planet and Olympia, Stirling believes that The Procession “should be something that says ‘this is a good place to live.’”

Procession of the Species

April 26 and 26

Downtown Olympia

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