BY EMILY McHUGH
With the annual Procession of the Species just around the corner, founder Eli Sterling recalls his own discovery of myth and how it inspired him to begin Olympia’s finest tradition.
The Procession of the Species has for years been a staple of Olympia cultural life, exposing the most eccentric aspects of the community in an annual spring gala. Humming packs of dancers dressed as bumblebees in tutus, giant paper-mache worms mounted on repurposed boat carts, and twirling troops of skipping wind sprites has come to characterize Olympia’s spring Arts Walk season, drawing hundreds of people to the streets of downtown whether to participate in the procession or to revisit the imagination of their childhood from the sidelines as the four elements of earth shimmy, spark, crawl, and flow towards the waterfront.
But the philosophy behind this strange and colorful tradition is seldom made explicit in keeping with one of the festival’s three original rules, which it has held to since its founding: to not include any written words in the day’s festivities.
Talking with founder Eli Sterling, it becomes clear that behind the Procession of the Species’ whimsy and creative spirit is a deep dedication to storytelling as a means to effect real change, to understand human behavior and and to explore how the relationship between the fairytale, conversation, and action can bring about real shifts in community thinking.
A Washington native, Evergreen graduate, carpenter, and devoted environmentalist, Eli Sterling has dedicated his life to understanding the function of storytelling within a culture and a community.
“It’s in the metaphorical transformations between the storyteller and the story itself that allows for the real animation of the mind to take place,” he said. “When we see that whatever is carrying the story, in many cases the storyteller, is itself buoyed, actually carried by the story, that’s when we begin to suspend our disbelief. It’s what every movie is trying to attain at some level, and that suspension of disbelief makes us exceptionally vulnerable because it is, I think, where the nuances of magic really occur.”
Having turned his back on law-school and years of hitchhiking around the globe, Sterling returned to Olympia in the early 1990s where he conceived of the Procession of the Species as a cultural experiment in which behavior would begin to drive conversation rather than the other way around.
Originally involved in organizing an auction, he got drawn into a conversation with a fellow environmentalist named Tina Floyd about putting on party for environmentalists to lift spirits in the aftermath of losing the 1994 election with Newt Gingrich’s Contract on Society, which “totally defeated the environmentalists.”
“There was this energy in the 1990s that as an environmentalists we were always criticized for being the naysayers, the negativists,” he said. “The thing is that no one felt like you were allowed to have a good time, because how can you have a good time when things are really dire?”
As the two of them floated ideas about a possible carnival celebrating the environment, Sterling hinged his commitment on the stipulation that the final product not be solely an entertainment event but rather be focused on creating a “cultural exchange” designed around protecting endangered species.
As the process of designing the first Procession gained speed, Sterling and the other organizers decided on the three basic rules: no live animals, no motorized vehicles, and, most importantly, no written words.
In keeping with that concept, Sterling refused propositions to have any activists speak during the event, even about the Endangered Species Act which he was, at the time, very involved with. His rigidity on the subject caught a lot of flack from environmentalists in the community who accused him of superficiality in order to seem “politically safe.” However, Sterling remains convinced that a lack of words is integral to the goal of the Procession.
“The reason we don’t have any written words is that on the surface it makes it seem safe politically, but what it really does is when you don’t have any written words, people don’t have an identity. You’re not this little cub-scout number 431, you’re not the Attorney General’s office, you’re not some environmental group, you’re not from the downtown association. You’re nobody,” he said. “And ultimately it is only your behavior, it is only your dance, your smile, your art, that is telling a story.”
Reflecting on his personal history, on how he came to be an environmentalist and, in his own words, “a provider of stories,” Sterling traces back to his first encounter with a real-world fairy tale, an encounter that ultimately gave him a new name.
Born James Sterling like his father, and Jim for short, Sterling endured years of an awkward existence attending high school in the 1970s. Short for his age group and essentially unnoticed by his peers, he failed to gain much recognition until his senior year when a dramatic growth spurt catapulted him into a star position on the school’s football team and won the affection of the school’s head cheerleader who later became his long-time girlfriend.
Having graduated high school with the intention of going to law-school, Sterling’s best friend, also named Jim, confided in him his plans to “join Viet Nam” to Sterling’s surprise and distress. Sterling did his best to convince his friend to reconsider, and drawing on their long friendship, he told him, “I don’t go where you don’t go and you don’t go where I don’t go.” The two eventually came to a compromise with Sterling agreeing to join his friend at a Christian Brotherhood seminary school in Illinois, but when Jim Schmitt met a girl at the factory job he took on in the interim and changed his mind about a life of celibacy, Sterling was forced to go alone.
It was there, in the sparse quarters of the seminary school, that Jim Sterling received a card from his mother with 21 dimes included in the envelope, alerting him to the cornerstone birthday he had forgotten in the atmosphere of strict religious instruction. Wanting to inaugurate the newfound privileges of his age, Sterling went to a little corner store to purchase a Playboy magazine, placing it amongst the meager belongings on his bedside table.
Still a year away from taking a formal vow of celibacy, Sterling was convinced the magazine would warrant nothing more than a small infraction, but one day a priest from the Brotherhood paid him a visit in his living quarters to enforce on him the sinful nature of his actions.
In the midst of his lecture, the priest sneezed, spraying mucus all over the shoulder of his cassock. He asked Sterling for Kleenex, and when Sterling responded that he didn’t have any, the priest told him to go to his own living quarters and retrieve some. So Sterling went up the stairs to search the priest’s room, and unable to find any, lifted the skirt draped around the foot of the bed only to find a mound of magazines reaching from corner to corner of “the bluest of the blue” material, “the kind of magazines you can buy on 1st avenue of any city.”
It was this discovery that both enchanted and hardened Sterling to the reality of fairy tales within the adult world.
“I had the exact sensation we have in a dream where we’re talking or we’re screaming and we can’t hear a voice and we’re trying to wake up, this panic we can’t get out of it. I panicked, I couldn’t hear anything. I listened to the priest continue to talk and I realized in that moment that what was taking place was a fairytale. I didn’t have any judgement of him, about the hypocrisy of it, but I realized ‘Oh my god, it’s a fairy tale.”
In the weeks that followed, Sterling began to distance himself from the Brotherhood.
“I realized all of this is about trying to restrain or trying to engage some aspect of ‘How do we want to behave in this world?’ In the next week following the episode, my world changed, as an altar boy, as a boy scout, I was if you envision wrapped in clear cellophane again and again and again. I was completely in a caste of how I was supposed to be and what the world was, and at that moment that fell away.”
Shortly afterwards Jim Sterling changed his name to Eli, taking on a nickname derived from the Three Dog Night song: Eli’s Coming, which his teammates coined based on his reputation of turning girls away at team parties in order to remain celibate.
He returned home without being ordained a priest to the deep disappointment of his mother who disowned him and his girlfriend who left him, but with an entirely new conception of the power and malleability of the story within society that later inspired him to begin the Olympian tradition.
“There is always a mythology around expression upon which the opportunity for a community to be buoyed by its own stories exists,” he said. “And so we do annual festivals or events and celebrations where again the story of a culture is told and then everyone gets to witness the entire community buoyed by the story itself. If we don’t have an opportunity to engage that, we don’t have a way for that community to be buoyed.”