Woods & Wilds encourages forest protection through storytelling

FRIENDS OF THE LORAX: From left, electronic musician Anthony Thogmartin, aka EarthCry, and storytellers Alison Fields and Robert Zachary are among the eight performers at Dogwood Alliance's Woods & Wilds event on Sept. 8 at The Grey Eagle. Photos courtesy of the artists

Now in its 22nd year, Dogwood Alliance is working to make U.S. forest protection a national priority in the fight against climate change. The Asheville-based nonprofit is also championing wetland forests as an important resource against extreme flooding and storms caused by rising global temperatures.

Bringing attention to these causes and uniting the community through storytelling and music is the organization’s third Woods & Wilds event, which takes place this year on Saturday, Sept. 8, at The Grey Eagle.

Kimala Luna, advancement outreach and recruitment manager for Dogwood Alliance, says the decision to use these art forms to spotlight environmental causes came about organically. Noting that “fearmongering isn’t a sustainable way to reach people,” she and her colleagues instead strive to build community through shared values, specifically “the fact that forests support us.” To achieve those results, they’ve found storytelling to be the most effective means.

In addition to past Woods & Wilds, Dogwood Alliance has organized other successful storytelling events, such as the Durham-based Stories Happen in Forests. The organization also has a video series by the same name that’s featured inspirational personal narratives from John Darnielle of the band The Mountain Goats and internet hiking sensation Daniel White, aka the Blackalachian. For the Asheville gathering, Luna sought out people who combine activism with the ability to spin an engaging yarn.

“Everyone has a connection to the forest, so our philosophy is pretty much anyone could get up and tell a story that could reach us all about this inherent connection that we have,” she says. “What I was looking for was compelling storytellers, but also people who had experience with the biodiversity of our region.”

Among those fitting that description are Gary Sizer, a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail; poet and activist Robert Zachary; LGBTQ advocacy group Southerners on New Ground organizer Nicole Townsend; and Sizwe Herring, founder of the nonprofit Earth education organization EarthMatters Tennessee, under whom Luna once worked as a junior camp counselor in his Kids to the Country summer program. The lone musical act will be EarthCry, the experimental electronic side project of Anthony Thogmartin from self-described Asheville “space rock” group — and past Dogwood Alliance collaborators — Papadosio. Luna notes that Thogmartin donates earnings from his solo endeavors to various environmental nonprofits.

Also on the program is storyteller Alison Fields, who grew up in Asheville with environmentally minded parents and graduated from UNC Asheville. Now based in Carrboro, the Asheville Moth Grand Slam winner says she spent plenty of time as a child “wandering in both the literal wilderness (semisupervised) and the wilderness of interconnected North Asheville parks and backyards, sometimes accompanied by friends and usually with a stack of novels and/or a bicycle,” but wasn’t what people might call “traditionally outdoorsy.”

“I liked the woods because the woods were fertile ground for making up stories about things and pretending I could see imaginary things out of my peripheral vision,” Fields says. “And if you got deep enough in a thicket, down in the dry leaves of a narrow ravine, the odds were good that you wouldn’t be spotted acting out things in your own pretend universe by the other sixth-graders.”

After wandering back into the woods about 10 years ago, after “a couple decades of spotty attendance,” Fields found the same solace that greeted her when she was a 12-year-old. However, she says communing with the natural world has become less about finding a place to make up new stories and more about paying attention to the stories happening around her. She finds such tales in things “as simple as a current in a stream, a rustle of leaves, a kerfuffle of birds and squirrels, and that wind that blows in during the late spring and smells almost like you could ride it all the way out to sea.” To help encourage the sustainability of that source of creativity, she’s excited for her first Woods & Wilds and playing what she feels is a small personal role for “an unimpeachable cause.”

“Protecting our environment and preserving our wild spaces is of paramount importance. We have one planet. We don’t get a do-over. It is such a great privilege that we even get to enjoy the spectacular diversity, the sublime beauty and the gorgeous clamor of life that we have,” Fields says. “We don’t have nearly as much left as we should. We lose more — far more than we can afford — every day. The smart people at Dogwood Alliance are doing the hard work of protecting forests and pursuing environmental and social justice. I just talk loud and have a lot of words.”

Along with the new venue, veterans of past Woods & Wilds will find many changes this year. The previous two events were all-day happenings at Salvage Station with kids activities, yoga, storytelling and a full lineup of musical acts. Though they were enjoyable experiences, Luna admits they also felt a little chaotic.

“This year, I really wanted to scale it back,” she says. “Because so much was going on, not everyone in attendance was listening to the stories being told, and I felt like that was the most important part.”

WHAT: Woods & Wilds
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 8, 7-10 p.m. $20

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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