The All Species Project Was An Innovator

aspAll Species Project is one of the most innovative ecocultural arts programs going, and certainly one of the most effective; it brings a dynamic sense of wonder back into our kids’ classrooms, even as it grounds and revitalizes our communities. Without such place-based, celebratory practices–without such collective forms for listening to, and honoring, the myriad animals and plants with whom our lives are entangled–all our scientific savvy and exhaustive species surveys will still be unable to save what’s left. –David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than. Human World

All Species Projects (ASP) exist in cities and villages in five states of the US, and in Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Sweden, and India. It also cooperates with Project African Wilderness. Though known mostly for producing festivals of “ecosensible” learning, the projects are really about interdisciplinary community education.

Over our twenty-two-year history, we’ve developed a tried-and-true formula: Collaborate with local organizations working in ecology, education, and the arts. Choose a pressing ecological and poetic theme, such as “Animals Who Build: Design with Nature,” “Holding Up the Sky,” or “As Long As This River Shall Run.” Create a bioregional curriculum, leading to a large culminating event.

The event might look like this: a multicultural dedication ceremony, proclamations by local organizations or government groups, dance, poetry, species-naming chants. And much more: a parade developing the theme, a pageant theater (directly involving hundreds of people for an audience of thousands), accompanied by displays, sideshows, performance installations, and Chautauqua-like teaching about local environmental issues.

The important thing is that the creation of this short event should take a long time and be an in-depth exploration, weaving neighborhood groups and skills together. We borrow a large empty building from a municipality, church, or factory for at least a four-month residency, in which the troupe creates an ecosensible skills/cultural arts studio that is open to the public every afternoon, evening, and weekend ahead of the culminating event.

In our public studio hundreds of people a week engage in science and arts activities with a troupe of ten or twelve gregarious teachers/aids. Together, they create the displays. costumes, masks, dances, skits, installations, etc., that will be part of the event. But to do this, they must also practice the teaching/learning required to immerse themselves in the event’s theme or to “become” the species they will portray in a pageant or parade. ASP also offers its services to local schools (usually twenty or twenty-five, but as many as 200).

We continually ask, “What kinds of experience, pedagogy, ambience, and teachers inspire students to explore and learn the specifics of living in symbiotic relationships within our bioregions? What skills fulfill our intentions to Replenish, Redesign, and Remember our Earthly connections (ASP’s version of the 3 Rs)?”

Most of these skills are missing from modern education, but they are necessary for becoming resourceful, contributing citizens. We’ve identified six broad areas: nature observation; systems ecology: multicultural story and myth: habitat sustenance and design/permaculture; health practices; arts and artesanry.

ASP projects can have long-lasting results. In Santa Fe, New Mexico local foresters were moving to clear-cut a cathedral of a forest on Elk Mountain. After examining and debating the topic in the local schools, an ASP studio team created a giant puppet play called the “Elk Mountain Controversy,” which was seen by several thousand people. As a result, Elk Mountain became such a household word in the town that the forest cutting was stopped.

In Ecuador in 1994, ASP collaborated with the Indigenous Federation Pincharimui and Permacultura America Latina. Agriculturalists researched the ancient terrace garden system and looked at the biodiversity that existed in the forest before the practice of burning the highlands. The art team found the mountain myths and Andean religious philosophy of the Pacha Mama (Earth Mother–literally “soul-force mother”). Local children made masks and larger-than-life puppets of local and endangered species. Out of this complex process, a curriculum for the schools emerged. It is still in use and still evolving.

In Chile in 1997, ASP partnered with the Lahuen Foundation, which is creating reserves for the most ancient of South American trees, the Auracaria. Rural and town students started mapping the areas between town and forest. Children and adults visited a nearby Auracaria forest for the first time in their lives. There they learned tracking exercises and games for finding and observing birds, along with permaculture games to help improve the production and biodiversity of their land.

ASP works as animateurs, to draw out the relevant ecological story from the community while adding inspiration, skills, and solutions. Our organizational goal is neither just to produce an event nor to create a huge infrastructure, but to seed community learning processes.

If we are ever to buck the trend of devaluating our own bioregions and those of others (our resource bases), it will be to the degree we plant the ecosensible skills that guide ASP. We must find ways to Remember, Redesign, and Replenish our way into the future.

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