Species back on the streets

OLYMPIA – A humpback whale was spotted Saturday afternoon in downtown Olympia, followed by bumblebees on bicycles, a group of belly dancers, giraffes on stilts and a team of zebras dancing to the pulsating rhythms of a raucous drum beat.

Yes, it was Procession of the Species, a party unique to Olympia that winds its way through downtown streets and ends at Heritage Park.

An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people watched the parade. In its wake, chalk art sprouted on downtown streets and turned ordinary intersections into pink, white and yellow displays.

Eli Sterling, founder of the Olympia-based Earthbound Productions, started the procession in 1995 to mark Earth Day and press for the congressional renewal of the Endangered Species Act. It celebrates the four elements; participants can dress up in costumes representing earth, wind, fire or water.

No problems were reported, said Olympia Police Lt. John Hutchings, who watched the parade from his motorcycle. There were no lost children, no crimes and no major traffic problems, he said.

“The weather cooperated; everybody cooperated,” Hutchings said. “When it comes off without a hitch, that’s what makes you proud of your community.”

Throngs of people lined the route, many of whom said they frequently attend the procession, although the event also attracted its share of first-time observers.

Kristie Putnam, who lived in Arizona before moving to Olympia, said she was impressed and enjoyed the creativity of the procession, which is known for participants dressing up as animals.

“There’s something for everybody,” said Putnam, who works for Olympia’s SafePlace, a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Joining her on the procession route was SafePlace executive director Mary Pontarolo.

“It’s the greatest thing,” Pontarolo added about the parade. “Is there anything in the country that does this? I don’t think so.”

Even frequent Procession-goer Pontarolo found something new in Saturday’s event.

“Is that a potato?” she wondered aloud about a slow-moving brown object that caught her eye.

Other observers said they enjoy the procession because it’s just so Olympia, a weird, quirky event that celebrates the natural world.

Ray and Betty Kaminski of Olympia said they like the spirit of the procession because it brings so many people together. Also catching Ray’s eye Saturday were the many people walking on stilts.

“That’s a cool idea,” he said.

Laura Lynn and Linda Donnelly of Olympia said they try to come to the procession every year.

“It’s just a joy to be part of this,” Lynn said. “It’s just imagination come to life.”

Linda said she likes the procession because it doesn’t have a commercial feel.

“There’s a place for everyone,” she said.

Laura added: “This is community at its best.”