Community Pageantry and Bioregional Education: Environmental Education for the ‘90s

by Chris Wells

Upper Rio Grande Bioregion

This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.

The traditional classroom setting is arguably the poorest place for children to learn about Earth and their place in the natural scheme. An imaginative respite from worksheets and text­books is the All-Species Project developed by Chris Wells. The author explains the intent behind this highly versatile program which relies heavily on community collaboration. Environmental issues are given thoughtful consideration and study through creative activities culminating in the festive annual celebration called All-Species Day. It is a proven program which has been celebrated by many communities for more than a decade.

Wells describes one such celebration, outlining the activities chosen by the community to carry out the theme, “Why Wild?”. This engaging project nurtures individual and community values, addressing environmental issues realistically but with a healthy dose of hope and revelry.

We are constantly bombarded by facts and figures reflecting the cultural and ecological disintegration of modern society. We know that the reintegration of a more viable society comes with developing greater senses of self-worth and the realization of our place in the web of Life. Nurturing such values is the hearthstone of the All-Species Project.

Many are coming to realize that restored respect and understanding of the Earth, its elements, plants, animals, and our place within them, are essential parts of the “journey of regeneration”. We are looking for that which informs and inspires this journey in diverse kinds of communities around the Earth.

When the cultural arts are alive and well, they are here to do just that—to inform, to reflect, to inspire, to honor feelings and as such to purge and renew. The inspirational and cathartic aspects of the environmental movement should be researched and developed if people are to act upon the information they have.

The All-Species Project was started to approach serious environmental issues in creative ways, as exploratory curriculum and educational reminders of essential values and respect for the Earth and its creatures. It gives hope and new perspectives to children and communities, many of whom now have a fatalistic view of the future. Without realistic hope, we will see more self-destructive behavior and shortsighted planning.

All-Species Project is a cultural arts/education program working in schools and diverse communities culminating in a yearly event: a commemorative holiday, a community-created festival of remembrance and discovery known as All-Species Day. Its purpose is to celebrate and discover our connection to the Earth and all species. We also create out of this a community troupe, a familial network of skilled educators, artists, and concerned citizens who are recruited into teams of varying size depending on the nature and requirements of each project.

Community pageantry, representational and processional theater, exploration of holidays as reminders of values, interest in animals and other species, ecological studies—all of these are underestimated inspirations which, together, can spawn a community curriculum with special societal magic. All-Species Projects are strides towards making us actively aware of our interdependence with animals, plants, and elements. Our search is for the creatively contagious collaborative projects which engage a community in exploring its ecological connection. Once we feel this connection, we can face the facts and figures with an understanding and a new capacity to act in relation to the world on which we depend.

All-Species Day as Ideas

All-Species Day is an annual celebration whose seeds are planted each year in the fall with the selection of the theme. They are nourished through the winter in meetings, discussions, and study groups, and are sprouted in spring studios, workshops, and classrooms. They mature on the day through floats, costumes, sideshows, story-tellers, educational booths, performances large and small, food, dancing, and music.

Holidays commemorate values. Holidays keep a culture’s sense of who it is, consciously or unconsciously, selfishly or altruistically, regionally and/or globally. The urge to commemorate is a strong part of the urge to communicate. Articulately reminding ourselves of and inspiring ourselves to the values of an ecologically-attuned society is something we need to instill into our lives and into the fabric of worldwide communities. Yet the success of holidays as cultural education tools depends upon the kind of preparation and how intimately the community and individuals are involved.

Preparations in Community and School

The values of Christmas are communicated as much while helping Mom bake Christmas pies as they are spread during the gift-giving. Chanukah as a festival of light and renewal is communicated through teachings before the day as well as through celebrations and rituals of the days themselves. Kwanza, the West African solstice festival, is effective because celebrational and ceremonial family arts are prepared weeks in advance on themes such as “family,” “light,” “fire,” and “friendship.” The Zuni Indians of New Mexico prepare 49 days for their cultural renewal festival, Shalako. The preparation lends enduring qualities to this cultural institution celebrated in the same town in New Mexico for 1000 years.

But as festival artists and environmental educators, we must “take care that the work address real situations and needs, and not be a mere collusion of the avant-garde with fake primitive fantasies.” (White, 1988)

As we live in a time of mega-environmental crises—ozone layer destruction, chronic pollution of the oceans, deforestation, desertification, acid rain, species extinction—we need inspirational community and school curricula of creative learning activities and solution-oriented thinking to lead up to our celebrations.

These community collaborative arts programs for the ‘90s must be relevant and accessible, with cultural sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of host communities. “Celebration is something produced through constant negotiation with its intended participants—negotiation both as a political process and an epic journey to rebuild the necessary bridges between the domestic, the social and the mythic. It is a living theater created not for an audience but for a community. And if no community exists, it may create one.” (White, 1988)

Pageantry requires and inspires a community to marry many arts, disciplines and labors in the belief that by artfully and articulately recalling our values, we will activate them and make space for Life. In the instance of All-Species Day, the pageant theater, parade and preparatory projects remind the community of our earthly connections through the studies of ecology, wildlife, giant puppetry, poetry, song, music, dance, theater, displays, education and community collaboration. All-Species Projects bring together people of diverse economic and cultural backgrounds in a creative exploration of shared ecological values.

One Town’s All-Species Day
(May 20, 1988: Santa Fe’s 8th Annual All-Species Day) The theme: Why Wild?
Multicultural opening ceremonies

The day is kicked off by the San Juan Tewa Indian Buffalo Dancers. Next, in rustic harmonies, the De Colores Singers glorify the landscape of New Mexico in Spanish song. The crowd joins in, singing the beautiful 18th century hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

All-Species Day Parade

Soon the parade starts up with rhythm sections leaping forth and the ecological floats moving slowly amongst the several thousand children, teens, parents and contingents of creatures. (All of this is available on video.) The masks, costumes, and other representations are the results of months of educational and artistic species studies in schools, church groups, clubs, scouts, etc. Roadrunners, rattlesnakes, pinion trees, coyotes, river otters, pumas, red-tailed hawks, western flickers, mosquitoes, antelope—these creatures have come to town to remind us of their place in the world.

Pageant Puppetry Theater

The All-Species Parade of about 4000 people arrives at a large park for the year’s giant puppetry pageant theater, “Aldo and the Wolf,” dedicated to the naturalist author and wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold, who did so much to bring the science of ecology to the modem world. A quartet plays Pachelbel beautifully from their wheelchairs. A group of teenagers from a local drug abuse program come in as stilt-dancing performers in a crane dance. Wild serenity is invoked for a moment in the city. The wolf study group from a local school club JADE (Juveniles Against the Destruction of the Earth) makes their choreographed stalking moves in masks made from recycled materials, as full-size buffalo puppets appear out of a cloud of smoke. The pageant has begun.

Ecological Sideshows

Later, during sideshow time, three elementary schools have prepared their plays on wilderness topics so they can be presented today. The crowd moves from professional mimes and musicians to puppeteers, dance groups and speakers, each with short repeated shows on ecological themes. Live bison, wolves, and raptors in the care of local ranchers and animal doctors arrive.

Images of nature in its glory and balance, scenes of family and community overcome oppressive forces of ignorance and destruction. The world for a moment seems turned right-side-up again. People are seen in the course of the day crying and laughing, thinking out loud with strangers, and in a few paved hearts seeds of appreciation are starting to germinate.

All-Species Day as Reality

All-Species Days, the collaborative invention of many people, have been celebrated for ten years in over 35 communities—a significant gestation period. Ongoing and growing projects exist in Kansas City, Mo; Arcata, Calif.; New York City; Greenville, N.C.; Vancouver, B.C.; and Santa Fe, N.M. Now that it has taken on a life of its own, it’s popping up in many communities.

All-Species Days start from species and habitat studies. Representational mask studies of various species fill the parade part of All-Species Day. Replicable formulas facilitate the theater of environmental concerns and earthly connection, which are written and directed autonomously within each community or school.

In Santa Fe, which for eight years has been the main seeding project, 4000 people participated in the last All-Species Day. We’ve been credited with creating the public awareness which stopped the cut of Elk Mountain, a remnant of southwestern old-growth forest. The 1987 pageant theater of over 100 volunteers—“Earth’s Forests: Roots of Peace”—inspired a recycling program in the Santa Fe public schools. However, these concrete results are just indicators of the larger potential of an effective ecological cultural arts program to raise consciousness.

Chris Wells is a many-talented artist and environmental educator from Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is also one of the co-founders of the All-Species Project, a cultural arts/education program working in schools and diverse communities culminating in a yearly event: an All-Species Day celebration of our connection to the Earth and all species.

Liked it? Take a second to support Quinn Collard on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!